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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
Some may roll their eyes at the discussion of open government and open records laws, believing them to be the concerns of only the media and advocacy groups.
But a transparent government is an important piece in the foundation of our republic. The representatives we elect work for us, and it’s important that they conduct our business in the open. Secret government meetings are for politburos and despots, not a nation founded on the principals of government of, by and for the people.
Yet with increasing and alarming frequency, elected officials try to circumvent that idea by meeting behind closed doors and finding new ways around open government laws designed to protect the public from such clandestine dealings.
Elected officials are allowed by law only to discuss matters involving personnel, litigation or land acquisition behind closed doors. They are not allowed to vote or conduct other official business in secret. Nor can they keep official documents and communications hidden from view.
The idea behind this is simple: Those who govern take actions that directly affect our taxes, public safety, schools and other public concerns. This is not their private club or boardroom; they work for us and we have a right to observe every move they make and word they speak on the job.
Fortunately, Georgia’s open meeting laws may get a boost next year. House Bill 397 received a committee hearing during the August special session of the General Assembly and will come before the body when the legislature convenes in January. The bill would strengthen the state’s sunshine laws by increasing fines and penalties to government agencies that violate the laws of public access.
It is a timely bill meant to address a growing problem. State Attorney General Sam Olens, who helped craft the bill, said his office is on a pace to receive around 400 complaints this year of illegal closed meetings, nearly double the usual number.
The new proposal would double the fine to $1,000 for open meetings violations, with an extra $2,500 for each additional violation in a 12-month period. Violations of record requests would result in increased fines as well. The bill also would clarify what electronic records and documents must be made available to the public, another complicating factor in the digital age.
The difficult part in enforcing such laws is how many elected officials work to find ways around them. For instance, a group of commissioners or council members can meet without a quorum to discuss certain issues, then put the results of that discussion to action in a vote in public, even if the bulk of the decision-making was done outside the public’s view.
This is what many feel happened on the Hall County Board of Commissioners when three members voted to dismiss several county employees and hire a temporary law firm at their first meeting of the year. All the discussion and debate over that move had already been held in private meetings that the public was not privy to.
This cloak of secrecy that some officials hide behind just further widens the gulf of public trust that continues to breed skepticism of government at all levels. Officeholders from both parties are to blame, from the White House all the way down to all local governments.
The proposed state bill isn’t perfect, and could go much further. One provision would allow governments to continue to discuss hiring of top-level managers and senior supervisors in secret. The Georgia Press Association has advocated that those meetings be made public, since those leaders involved carry the power and responsibility of elected officials and should be held equally accountable.
A bigger problem is the fact that any new law must be passed by elected officials who themselves are protected from public scrutiny. While open meetings laws affect your county and city governments, the General Assembly is exempt. Its members can meet in secret and discuss any issue they like without you knowing about it.
A case in which this recently came to light occurred last summer. A racial discrimination suit brought by a state Senate staff member was not made public, though it was later learned that the Senate paid a law firm more than $80,000 of your tax money to handle it.
The money was designated as a “personnel issue,” and members who took part in the decision signed an agreement to keep the matter confidential. Their motivation seemed to be to protect those involved from public embarrassment.
We don’t think those empowered to spend the public’s money at any level should have the authority to decide on their own that their actions will remain confidential. If $80,000 in state money is to be spent, there should be accountability for the decision. That accountability cannot exist without the public being made aware of what happened and why.
So is this what we elect public officials to do, cover their tracks for their own benefit and tell us it’s none of our business? Let us suggest this as possible reform: Lawmakers can make any decision they want outside public review, as long as any money spent as a result of such a decision comes from their own pockets and not from the taxpayers.
Now the concern is that the same legislators, many of whom don’t seem to believe in open government, will be allowed to amend the laws already in place. That has some advocates concerned that any changes could take the laws in the wrong direction.
“In Georgia, our laws are really not that bad,” said Hollie Mandheim, executive director off the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “I’m afraid we’re going to end up with something worse.”
Worse is not an option. Olens’ goals to strengthen the laws are shared by those of us who seek to share what public officials are doing with your money and your governments with those who put them in office. Anything less takes us further from the ideal of a people’s government and should not be tolerated.