Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms proposes new open records policy

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (left), along with city COO Richard Cox, answered questions about her cabinet resignation and the the cyberattack on city computers at a press conference at Atlanta City Hall ton April 10. Earlier she released a statement saying “I have asked for the resignation of all Cabinet members, and after further assessment will determine which resignations I will accept. Consistent with what I said upon taking office in January, I have taken the first 100 days to evaluate the leadership of my Administration.” Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (left), along with city COO Richard Cox, answered questions about her cabinet resignation and the the cyberattack on city computers at a press conference at Atlanta City Hall ton April 10. Earlier she released a statement saying “I have asked for the resignation of all Cabinet members, and after further assessment will determine which resignations I will accept. Consistent with what I said upon taking office in January, I have taken the first 100 days to evaluate the leadership of my Administration.” Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has announced a new policy on public records that includes mandatory training, potential disciplinary action, and a new city officer dedicated to enforcing the Georgia Open Records Act.

The policy represents drastic overall to how the city responds to requests for records made under the state’s open records law and departure from how former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration dealt with public records.

But Bottoms’ first 100 days have highlighted seemingly systemic problems involving public records.

Last month, revelations regarding text messages sent by Bottoms’ former press secretary giving orders to delay the release of records and provide them in a confusing format prompted Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry into potential criminal violations of the law.

About a week ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at Atlanta City Hall.

The complaint outlines 10 examples of alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act dating back to July 2016. The media outlets seek mediation through Carr’s office to create enforcement measures to ensure compliance.

Bottoms’ announcement about a new open records policy appeared in letter provided to the City Council on Monday. It incorporates many of the suggestions in the AJC and Channel 2 Action News’ complaint, including a city ordinance that establishes an official records custodian and mandatory open records training for all city employees.

“The AJC is dedicated to the public’s right to know what government is doing,” said AJC Editor Kevin Riley in a statement. “We’re glad to see that Atlanta has recognized its obligation to the public. Mayor Bottoms’ proposal is a good starting place for the discussion we have requested Attorney General Carr’s office to mediate.”

News Director Misti Turnbull at Channel 2 Action News also welcomed Bottoms' proposals.<br/>"At WSB-TV, we place high value the public's access to its government and leaders, and we are encouraged that the city appears ready to take some necessary steps toward reform and accountability," Turnbull said.<br/>

Under the Reed administration, city officials often delayed releasing public records and sometimes refused to produce them until threatened with legal action.

In an interview with Channel 2 Action News, Bottoms declined to speak about the culture created under Reed’s administration.

“But what I can speak to is what I intend for my administration to reflect, and that’s an administration that is open and transparent,” she said.

Despite the new policy, the city still had yet to produce records requested by the AJC more than six weeks earlier. Employees in the communications department said they were working as quickly as they could to turn over the records but were struggling with an extensive backlog.

Bottoms asked her entire Cabinet to resign last week, with the exceptions of Chief of Operations Richard Cox and Chief of Staff Marva Lewis — both of whom she hired.

Bottoms said she will decide whose resignations she accepts and she refuses.

The mayor apparently made a quick decision in regards to former Communications Director Anne Torres, a Reed holdover. On the day Bottoms requested the resignations, Torres’ city issued cell phone had already been disconnected.

In a statement, Torres said she was pursuing job opportunities in the private sector as she had previously planned.

Clark D. Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University said the ordinance establishing Official Record Custodian with enforcement should be modeled on provisions in city charter for the city auditor.

The auditor is appointed by city council and can be removed only for cause by two-thirds vote of the city council. Neither mayor nor council may dictate the appointment or the removal of auditors’ employees, and the auditor must have no involvement in partisan political activities or the political affairs of the city.

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