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Freedom of Information: Just how open is Forest Park government?

Public records do not belong to public officials.

Public records belong to the public.

When a citizen asks for records held in the offices of local government, they are merely asking to inspect or copy what already belongs to them.

The presumption of anyone who works at city hall or the courthouse should be that the records they hold are open, public records subject to the state’s Open Records Act.

There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions exist to protect personal privacy and proprietary information, not to protect public officials.

Stalling or denying open records requests so citizens will not know what you are up to is not only wrong and unethical, it is illegal.

The rights of access to local government records are the rights of all citizens, not just the press or a privileged few.

A record may be viewed by a city manager, mayor, council members, office staff, etc., and then denied to the press and the public.

What does that say about the relationship between government and the people?

Redacting, or concealing, a person’s Social Security number or personal health information is most certainly warranted.

After all, we all still have personal rights of privacy.

Government itself, however, should have no rights of privacy.

That is because government, and its documents, belongs to the governed, not the governing.

It is a sad commentary that in the United States of America, open government laws are needed.

The veil of secrecy that exists from city hall to the courthouse to the state house flies in face of freedom.

When elected officials deny access to public records, they are denying the rights of citizens.

When Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart celebrated on election night, his words were a welcomed breath of fresh air. He thanked his supporters, very humbly and graciously, and then proceeded to pledge transparency in government.

He was clear, concise, well-spoken and spot on when it came to the subject of open government.

Now, months later, the state’s leading authority on Open Records, Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson has said the city is in violation of law by denying recent requests.

Revisions to the law passed by the General Assembly in 2012 impose a $1,000 fine for the first violation of the act and $2,500 for subsequent violations and Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter has said those fines can be cumulative for multiple violations related to a single incident.

So, if the citizens of Forest Park believe they do not have access to public records, that decisions are being made about the city’s future behind closed doors and that the state’s sunshine laws are being violated, what recourse do they have?

First, make honest, specific open records requests.

Then, show up at meetings.

Sign up for public comment and express frustrations.

Speak directly and individually to elected officials about your concerns.

Then, contact the Georgia Attorney General’s office and report violations of the Open Records Act and / or Open Meetings Act with your proof in hand.

The final recourse, of course, is at the polls.

— Editor Jim Zachary