Roswell makes controversial change affecting anonymous open records requests

Credit: Karen Zitomer

Credit: Karen Zitomer

Roswell has a new requirement for obtaining open records that appears to circumvent people who wish to make anonymous requests.

The community group Roswell Truth, which is critical of the city’s elected officials and frequently conceals its members’ identities, says the city clerk’s office stopped charging its credit card on file earlier this month. And as of Monday had not forwarded an open records request dated March 6.

City Council approved a resolution during a Monday meeting that requires people who submit requests to provide verifiable names and addresses in order to have public records “mailed, emailed or delivered electronically.”

Anonymous requestors would be required to pay and pick-up or view documents in person.

The resolution addresses anonymity by stating: “Anyone wishing to remain anonymous or use aliases may come into City Hall to inspect and copy public documents and to pay for such records and associated search, retrieval, redaction and production or copying costs as provided by law.”

Mayor Kurt Wilson said the policy change is not an issue of constitutional rights or free speech, but it is an effort to stop requestors from using fake names and contact information to obtain documents.

Someone impersonated resident Jason Yowell, a longtime resident and member of the Transportation Advisory Commission, when submitting an open records request earlier this year, according to Yowell and Roswell officials.

“To suggest that somehow we are violating free speech and the Constitution is a far reach,” Wilson said before Monday’s vote. “Council is committed to transparency.”

Following nearly 90 minutes of debate, Wilson and five council members voted in favor of the change. Councilwoman Sarah Beeson was the sole opposing vote.

Beeson invited the public to use her name and address to submit public records if they wished to maintain anonymity.

Richard T. Griffiths, a spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, has told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there is nothing in the Open Records Act that prevents people from being anonymous when seeking information, and it’s not unusual for someone to fear retaliation.

Beeson says Roswell officials decided to bring forth the open records requirement because of an abundance of public record requests from Roswell Truth, which often takes to social media and email lists in their criticism of the city administration.

An email from the city clerk’s office dated last Thursday advised the Roswell Truth sender to pick up the documents at City Hall. “You are free to make payment up there and collect the documents.”

Roswell Truth replied in an email on Friday stating, “We would like to use the credit card you have accepted in the past. When that has been charged, please let us know”

During public comment at the Monday meeting, resident Eric Schumacher said he has submitted an abundance of open records requests and suggested the city allow anonymity at the point that the request is passed to staff members.

Wilson acknowledged there were “abuses in the past “before the current administration and said biases should not be carried out against someone submitting a request for public records.

“Let me know if that has happened in the last 15 months,” Wilson said. “I will put my bottom ... dollar on it, it has not.”