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Editorial: Why we need Sunshine Laws to hold our governments accountable
Gainesville Public Safety Complex 0001

Government entities distribute information in a variety of ways in today’s media landscape.

They still send traditional press releases to media outlets like The Times. They also post on social media, do podcasts and provide videos of public meetings.

During “Sunshine Week,” when newspapers across the country celebrate the laws that provide some transparency in government, we’d like to applaud our local governments for their efforts to inform the public.

One of those laws requires governments to publicize when officials are gathering to meet — and unless they’re discussing real estate acquisition, personnel or litigation, the meetings are open to the public.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

Hall County and Gainesville governments have increased access to those meetings by providing video recordings of them on social media and their websites. Though the public access channel TV18 closed at the end of 2018, online videos arguably provide easier access to those interested in following an issue. Online videos are continuously available rather than aired at specific times.

Several local government entities have considered using technology such as Facebook Live to stream meetings as they are happening. Hall County Schools has even tried it a few times, though it noted that interest from the public was low.

Despite low interest, we’d like to see local governments pursue this option. It requires a cellphone, a charging cord, access to WiFi and a tripod. Quality, as noted by Hall school officials, can be questionable, and additional equipment may improve the sound and visuals. But in an age where anyone can whip out a cellphone and hit record, it makes sense to take this step. It’s a low investment to dramatically increase the public’s access to the information in a transparent way.

Facebook is not the solution to problems of open governments, though.

Follow a Facebook page like that of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Northeast District and you’ll learn about upcoming open house meetings, planned lane closures and newly opened bridges.

That’s all useful information. What you won’t learn about is the failed strength tests of the new Exit 14 bridge across Interstate 985.

Last week, The Times published an article about the failed tests and another on the materials that were to blame.

This story developed from a tip made to The Times and a request for information from the DOT. When information was not readily available, The Times filed an open records request with the DOT.

A few basics about sunshine laws

Open records and open meetings laws vary state by state. The following information is for Georgia. More information is available from “A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government

  • A government must respond within three days to a request for records as to whether it can fulfill the request and how much it estimates it will charge.

  • If a government does not fulfill the request, it must cite the section of state law that allows the documents to remain private. An example of documents not subject to inspection would be those that are part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation.

  • Those requesting documents must pay for their retrieval at an hourly rate of the lowest-paid person qualified to gather and review  them.

  • Governments must publicize the times, dates and locations of their regular meetings.

  • An agenda should be provided before the meeting that includes all matters expected to come up

  • Executive sessions can occur behind closed doors for issues regarding personnel, litigation or real estate transactions. Votes should be made in public.

Open records requests are made frequently by newspapers to obtain information that governments do not always provide otherwise. The laws allow average residents and the media to access public information that might otherwise not be made available.

In the case of the Exit 14 bridge, The Times is paying $187.91 to receive 820 pages related to the new interchange. Look for another story this week once those documents have been received.

The public deserves to know when a bridge funded by taxpayer dollars has failed tests.

Open records laws ensure they have access to the information.

In another recent open records request made by The Times, the newspaper learned the details of Gainesville officials’ decision to spend $10 million in public funds for land at the midtown end of the pedestrian bridge over Jesse Jewell Parkway.

In both of these as well as other cases, once the records have been requested, local government officials take the time to speak with reporters, adding context to the documents. It’s usually helpful background to explain what the documents show. But words from government officialdom are no substitute for the actual documents, which are proof of what those government employees are actually up to and motivation for the governments to address issues they might prefer to sweep under the rug.

Those stories are but two examples of the many occasions The Times has used existing state and federal laws to obtain information on behalf of the general public. It’s part of what we do.

The various laws dealing with making public records available and holding open government meetings are collectively called “sunshine laws,” as in allowing the sun to shine into government operations for all to see what is done.

Georgia’s version of Sunshine Laws are much stronger then they were a couple of decades ago, but still not as strong as they could be. At that, they are better than what is found in many other states.

The annual Sunshine Week recognition is meant to be a reminder of how important those laws are, and of the need to be vigilant in making sure attempts to weaken them are not successful.

And while the news media is behind the Sunshine Week recognition, it is important to realize that these laws are not written for the benefit of the media. They are a guarantee that the general public has access to government information, not just the journalists who often work on the public’s behalf.

Laws mandating that government records cannot be maintained in secret, government meetings cannot be held in private, and government actions cannot be taken without public knowledge, serve us all well. We would be remiss in not acknowledging the importance of those laws to the functions of our society, while in doing so perhaps subtly reminding all those in government service of their existence and intent.

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