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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.
The news that the Georgia General Assembly is considering a major updating of the state's open records and open meetings laws is both welcome and frightening.
Welcome in that the laws do need to be improved and clarified in some areas; frightening in that with the state legislature there is always the very real possibility that the laws could be weakened rather than improved as the legislation moves toward a vote.
For two legislative sessions, Attorney General Sam Olens has been working on a package of revisions to the sunshine laws that would result in the most sweeping changes in a dozen years. Olens' proposals have been incorporated into House Bill 397, which is now winding its way through the legislative process and may be voted upon before this year's session of the General Assembly comes to a close.
The primary sponsor of the House Bill is Rep. Jay Powell who, like Olens, has some experience in dealing with the existing sunshine laws as an elected official in the executive branch of a local government. Powell is a former mayor, Olens a former county commission chairman.
There is no doubt the existing laws pertaining to open meetings and open records could use some tweaking in the right direction. And there is a lot to like about the package put forth by the attorney general, including the fact that it is coming from the very office that often is called upon to interpret the sunshine laws for both the public and those in government.
The proposed changes would, among other things, mandate that more detail be released in public on real estate transactions; increase the potential fine that could be assessed against public officials for violating the laws, as well as allowing civil penalties in additional to criminal; allow for open records requests to be made orally as well as in writing; make it clear that public votes are required on certain items discussed in executive sessions, and require minutes be made of executive sessions as well; and would clarify exactly what constitutes a meeting.
The revision also would bring to the existing law updated wording related to the retention and production of government records to reflect changes in technology. Such an update is needed given the digital revolution that has changed the landscape for most government record keeping.
When the original laws were drafted most government records were kept in a folder in a filing cabinet in an office; today they are just as likely to reside on a server in another country, or even on an electronic "cloud."
The proposal isn't perfect, nor would we expect it to be, given that there is never a consensus among all parties as to how to balance the public's need to know against the ability of government to do its job while under the microscope of public scrutiny.
But all in all, the reform package looks to be a good one.
Under the Gold Dome of the Capitol, however, that can always change. Legislators themselves are not covered under the state's sunshine law, which only applies to the executive branch of government. But they have many friends and supporters in the political world who don't want the sort of public oversight such laws provide, and there is always plenty of political pressure to weaken, rather than strengthen, such laws.
In the course of debating HB 397, there is always the possibility that a change can be made here or there that would result in Georgians having less access to the inner workings of their government rather than more. That is why there is always some trepidation when lawmakers start tweaking the sunshine laws.
We would hope Powell and Olens will be vigilant in preserving the integrity of their effort by preventing the bill from moving forward if an attempt is made to introduce dark clouds of secrecy into the sunshine legislation.
While certainly not perfect, the open records and open meetings laws now on the books are viable and have, for the most part, served the state well. We don't need to exit the current legislative session with something less than what we've got.
Though sunshine laws often are associated — at least in the minds of some politicians — with the news media, they are, in fact, the general public's best protection against government abuse and misconduct. Collectively, the open meetings and open records laws guarantee that anyone, not just those affiliated with the media, can obtain information about how government works, how tax money is spent, and whether officials on the public payrolls are doing their jobs.
Improving the existing laws is a good idea, but we can't allow them to be sabotaged in the legislative process.