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.
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 are now winding their way through the legislative process as House Bill 397, with Rep. Jay Powell as its primary sponsor.
Powell is a former mayor, Olens a former county commission chairman. Both have experience in dealing with the current law from the perspective of the executive branch of government.
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 verbiage related to the retention and production of government records to reflect changes in technology.
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. 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, which is why there is always some trepidation when lawmakers start tweaking the Sunshine law.
We would hope that 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 now.