State AG Olens reveals overhaul to sunshine laws
by Greg Bluestein
Associated Press Writer
March 01, 2011 12:00 AM | 714 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ATLANTA - Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens on Monday unveiled a sweeping rewrite of Georgia's sunshine laws that would sharply increase the fines of meetings and records violations and require advance payment for costly requests.

The changes would require officials who close meetings to keep notes that a judge could review in case of a legal challenge. And the measure would increase the fines for violations of the sunshine laws to $1,000, up from a $100 fine for violations of the open records act and a $500 fine for flouting the open meetings law.

It also includes revisions sure to upset First Amendment advocates. Aside from asking for advance payments on records that cost more than $500 to prepare, it also calls for new exemptions to the open records law. They include documents about security training and any record that would jeopardize the receipt of federal funds.

Olens has described the proposal, introduced by Republican state Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, as a balancing act between government officials who want more flexibility in how to respond to request and advocates who call for more transparency.

"While traveling around the state last year, I heard repeatedly from concerned citizens that our current Open Meetings and Open Records laws are more confusing than constructive," Olens said in news release. "Georgians deserve a clear, coherent law that enforces good government practices and allows them to hold their elected officials accountable. I believe this legislation makes great strides toward that goal."

The measure rewrites much of the lengthy open records law, revising many passages that are confusing and redundant. In one example, the measures takes out repeated instances that allow officials to redact Social Security numbers from records, spelling out the restriction bluntly once.

A separate open meetings measure specifies that agencies can hold closed meetings to discuss property negotiations or sign off on real estate contracts. But it said a vote to acquire real estate isn't binding until it's taken in an open meeting. And it calls for someone to take notes in closed meetings for a judge to review in a legal dispute.

Both the measures add stiff new fines for violations of the sunshine laws. They call for a $1,000 fine for the first violation, and a $2,500 fine for each additional violation within a year. It allows government agencies to argue they acted in "good faith" in any criminal action.

The open records measure also lists the exceptions to the law in one passage, which Olens said would make it easier for both the media and private citizens to understand what documents it allows them to obtain.

Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said she was concerned about some of the bill's revisions.

"What we have heard of the proposals suggest that they will make the open records process more cumbersome for the public and citizens," she said. "Although we have not seen the bills, the ideas we have heard will create more delay, cost, and burden for the public."

A spokesman for Georgia House Speaker David Ralston declined comment because he hasn't seen the bill yet. A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle did not immediately return a call for comment.

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