JONESBORO — Candidates in the Clayton County 2012 election have raised issues regarding government transparency. The Clayton News Daily has been contacted by readers concerned about access to local government records and citizens have complained about their rights to address officials in open public meetings.
Colloquially referred to as Sunshine Laws, Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records legislation has been touted as some of the strongest government transparency laws in the nation.
This year, the Georgia General Assembly added even more weight to those laws protecting citizens’ access to their local government.
The Georgia Press Association’s legal counsel, David E. Hudson, has prepared a handbook detailing Georgia’s revised Open Meeting and Open Records acts.
According to Hudson, “Georgia law does not require public officers or employees to answer questions from the press or public. Often times, it would be a political mistake if they do not. What the law does require is that the public be given access to information through open meetings and open records.
Hudson explains the law is very broad to include nearly all meetings of local government. He explained, “The law applies to every state, county or municipal department, agency, board, bureau, commission or authority. It applies to every city, county or regional authority, including development and hospital authorities.”
He added that the legislation also applies to “any committee of its members created by any of the above authorities. It also applies to private entities that carry out the function of a public agency, e.g. private companies which take over the operations of public hospitals. It applies to personnel board hearings (except for deliberations), tax equalization boards and to coroner’s inquests. It also applies to any non-profit organization that receives at least a third of its funds from state or local revenues.”
While some states prohibit any number of elected officials from deliberating the public’s business outside of an open public meeting, Georgia law defines a “meeting” as being called by “prior arrangement” where there is “a quorum of the members of a governing body or agency or of any committee of its members and public business in discussed or presented.”
The law only allows officials to “close” a meeting or have “executive sessions,” under very specific guidelines.
In fact, he said, the government body must vote in an open pubic meeting to meet in executive session prior to the closing of a meeting but can only do so under certain circumstances that include:
• to discuss the acquisition or disposal of real estate;
• to discuss settlement of lawsuit or claims;
• to interview prospective employees and discuss personnel matters in certain situations (interviews of prospective executive heads of any agency, such as school superintendent, city manager, county manager, but he said would not include positions such as a school principal or sports coach).
• consultation with any attorney regarding pending or potential litigation;
• staff meetings for investigative purposes;
• parole hearings if witnesses would be at risk;
• facilities inspections;
• intergovernmental meetings and/or social gatherings;
The Georgia General Assembly has exempted itself from the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.
Public notice required
Hudson explained that officials must give public notice of meetings providing the time and place of the agency or committee and the notice must “be posted at least one week in advance and in a conspicuous place at the regular meeting place.”
Special called meetings require “written or oral notice,” and must be given “at least 24 hours in advance to the legal organ newspaper or to a newspaper of general circulation.”
Emergency meetings are allowed under the Act and Hudson explains, “When special circumstances require a special meeting with less than 24 hours notice, reasonable notice must be given under the circumstance including notices to the legal organ newspaper or a newspaper with general circulation in the county. The notice shall specify the reason why the meeting is held with less than 24 hours notice.”
The Open Meetings Act also requires local governments to post and make available upon request an agenda of the meeting, but non-agenda items can be introduced “if necessary.”
Hudson added, “The new law requires the keeping of minutes of closed meetings but they do not become public unless the agency consents or ordered by a court.”
However, the “minutes of a regular meeting by be available to the public after two business days.”
Votes must be public
The revised law is clear regarding all votes by local government and its committees. “Votes must be public and the minutes must reflect the persons making and seconding motions and the name of each member voting for or against a proposal.”
Protesting illegal meetings
“Closing a meeting to continue in executive session requires a majority vote of the quorum present. The names of those members voting to close and specific reasons for closure must be entered upon the official minutes and those minutes must be made available to the public,” Hudson said.
Officials who close a meeting are required to cite the exemption the Act that they believe allows them to close a meeting. The presumption should generally be that all meetings and actions are open to the public.
Action taken at any meeting in violation of the Act should be challenged in court within 90 days and measure approved during an illegal meeting can be declared null and void.
In Georgia, violating the Open Meetings Act is a criminal act if the violation is determined to be willful.
The 2012 Georgia General Assembly increased penalties for violating the Sunshine Law, resulting in some of the stiffest penalties in the nation. A first offense can result in a $1,000 penalty and a second offense $2,500. Additionally a $1,000 civil penalty can be assessed for a person or agency that “negligently” violates the Act.
The office of the Attorney General is empowered to enforce the Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Acts through either civil or criminal proceedings.