Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms early next year will appoint a transparency officer to ensure City Hall complies with Georgia's sunshine laws, a cabinet-level post created as part of a state-mediated settlement with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News over the city's repeated open records abuses under former Mayor Kasim Reed.
Bottoms said in a meeting Wednesday with AJC reporters and editors that she has selected Kristen Denius, one of the city’s top lawyers who specializes in state records law. Denius will be appointed during the first quarter of next year.
Denius, a city lawyer since 2001, helped draft the new transparency ordinance. She also was a lead city lawyer in mediation with the AJC and Channel 2 that was overseen by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office.
City Council unanimously approved the transparency officer post in September to help eliminate political interference with the production of public documents, a chronic problem exposed in reports this year by the AJC and Channel 2.
The framework for the officer and its responsibilities are groundbreaking for local government in Georgia and a rarity for municipalities across the country, open government experts said.
The post has the potential to open the inner-workings of city government like never before, but transparency advocates said it will take a sustained commitment by the Bottoms administration to ensure the officer maintains independence.
Four open government experts who reviewed the code for the AJC gave it high marks, and applauded the city’s commitment to put routine records online for public review. But two experts said language governing the officer’s enforcement power was ambiguous, and one said the post lacks defined powers to resolve disputes between records requesters and the city.
In April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with Carr's office alleging a "culture of political interference" in the production of public records, outlining 10 examples of alleged violations of state law by Reed's administration. The transparency officer, which the media organizations had some input in creating, was part of a settlement formalized in October.
Mayor: broad powers to investigate
The ordinance codifies that city employees are subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination, for failure to comply with state records law, and that violations “may be referred to appropriate authorities for criminal prosecution or civil enforcement.”
Denius will have the power to investigate the actions of anyone in city government including the mayor, Bottoms said.
"What I've said to our cabinet is, 'Don't lead me off a cliff and don't let me lead you off of a cliff,'" Bottoms said. "If it's me, ideally, I want her to stop me before I fall off the cliff."
The transparency officer and staff will have the authority, in consultation with the city attorney, to investigate cases of abuse. The officer also is charged with implementing mandatory annual training on Georgia Open Records Act compliance for all city employees and elected officials.
Each city department will have a designated records custodian charged with fulfilling requests, and those custodians’ contact information will be posted on a new web portal.
Documents produced as a result of all open records requests to the city eventually will be posted online, creating a repository for government records accessible to the public for free.
Dan Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Florida, said “there’s a lot of stuff here that we’d applaud in how it is structured.”
The commitment to annual open records training and publishing records online in searchable forms can save government time and money.
"The challenge here is, how is going to be executed? Bevarly said. "It has investigative powers, but it also says, 'when necessary.' Who gets to say when it's necessary?"
Bottoms said Denius will be empowered to investigate, along with the city attorney, and deliver findings to the department head of individuals under investigation. Department heads retain the power to deliver disciplinary action.
The city attorney also can refer matters to the state for prosecution, Bottoms said.
City Council President Felicia Moore said the measure doesn’t go far enough to ensure accountability.
Moore said she plans to introduce legislation that will create an independent compliance office combining the transparency officer with the city's auditor and ethics department.
“We don’t have an independent leg to that stool who holds people accountable and responsible for following the law,” she said.
Bottoms said she didn’t know what Moore’s plan would accomplish and said the city’s auditing function is often too slow to take “real time” action needed in an conflict over open government.
Reporting spurred state probe
Georgia law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and provide records as soon as they are available. Frustrating requests is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail.
The AJC and Channel 2 revealed a pattern of open records abuses under the administration of former Mayor Reed, including efforts by the city’s communications and law departments to hinder production of public documents.
In March, the media outlets uncovered efforts by Jenna Garland, a press secretary for Reed, to delay production of water billing records for city elected officials requested by Channel 2. Garland instructed a water department spokeswoman to "drag this out," "be as unhelpful as possible" and "provide the information in the most confusing format available."
In response, Carr ordered the state's first-ever criminal investigation of open records abuses.
Subsequent reporting found the law department provided legal invoices to the AJC last year that weren't genuine records.
In April, the media outlets uncovered text messages from last year by Reed's former top spokeswoman, Anne Torres, that showed she pressured the Atlanta Beltline's then-CEO to ignore the advice of the agency's attorney and delay the release of the CEO's employment contract.
“We can hold whatever we want for as long as we want,” Torres wrote.
Torres also issued a veiled threat against the job of then-Beltline attorney Nina Hickson, who advised correctly that the contract had to be released within three days. The Beltline ultimately followed the law.
Action on the GBI’s investigation is pending with the Attorney General’s office, which declined to comment.
Bottoms sets a new tone
Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communication professor, said Bottoms has set a better tone in her first year in office.
“It’s my impression that she is responding as a good, solid mayor and a woman of integrity,” Lisby said.
Bottoms launched Atlanta's Open Checkbook, an online portal to view city expenditures. It was an initiative rejected by Reed that had been championed by open government activists and Moore, the council president, when she was a district council member.
Bottoms also appointed Hickson, the former Beltline attorney who pushed back against the Reed administration, as city attorney. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has since credited the city with being more responsive to the federal investigation.
But there have been stumbles.
The Bottoms administration provides records faster than its predecessor, but reporters often encounter waits of weeks or sometimes months for routine records.
The city of Sandy Springs recently sued Atlanta alleging City Hall has ignored its open records requests in a long-running dispute over water bills.
Denius, who was not available for an interview, has a reputation as the public’s best advocate inside city government, City Hall insiders say.
But she was the messenger in a controversial decision by the Reed administration last year that stonewalled the public's access to records related to the federal corruption investigation.
Open government experts said the city’s stance violated state law. After intense media pressure, the Reed administration relented.
Bottoms said she couldn’t speak to actions of the past administration, but she said Denius has won praise for her work on behalf of open government through mediation with the Attorney General’s office.
“I suspect that you have not had a response from her like that this year,” Bottoms said.
Reports by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News in March showed the city of Atlanta’s communications and law departments attempted to hinder production of public records. That month, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr opened a criminal investigation of open records abuses, the first under state sunshine laws. In April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with Carr’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests. As a result of mediation, the city agreed to create a comprehensive policy to govern open records requests and hire a transparency officer to oversee production of records, annual records training of city employees and creation of a public website to track records requests.
Open records investigation timeline
- March 2018: The AJC and Channel 2 report on efforts by Jenna Garland, former press secretary to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, to delay production of water billing records to Channel 2. The media outlets also uncovered that the city's law department provided legal invoices to the AJC last year that weren't genuine records. That month, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asks the GBI to open the state's first-ever criminal investigation of open records abuses. The investigation is pending.
- April 11: The AJC and Channel 2 file a complaint with the Attorney General's office alleging"a culture of political interference" with open records requests at City Hall and demanding mediation.
- April 26: An AJC/Channel 2 investigation showed Garland's supervisor, Anne Torres, in 2017 tried to compel the Atlanta Beltline's CEO to delay production of public records and instructed him to thwart a city lawyer's advice to follow state records law. Torres also issued a veiled threat to that lawyer's job. The Beltline ultimately complied with the law.
- May 7: An AJC/Channel 2 investigation revealed texts that suggested Reed was shown an open records request for travel records of a cabinet member and that Garland told a water department official in a text "no action needed at this time" on the request, which was not filled for 13 months. The manager told the AJC she took the message as an instruction not to fulfill the request.
- May 14: The AJC and Channel 2 obtained a 2016 federal subpoena kept secret from the public and not disclosed in response to open records requests that revealed a much broader scope to the federal corruption investigation at City Hall than previously known. The subpoena demanded records about lucrative construction and concessions contracts at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, records about vendors with close ties to Reed and financial records for members of Reed's cabinet. Open government experts said the failure to disclose the document violated state law.
- June 4: The AJC reports on a May 4 letter that states Carr's office does not intend to bring criminal charges against the city of Atlanta, but that individuals could be prosecuted if evidence warrants it.
- Sept. 17: Atlanta City Council approves legislation supported by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms creating a transparency officer to enforce state open records law and the creation of a web portal for open records.
- Oct. 1: Council approves a settlement with the AJC and Channel 2. The settlement paid Cox Media Group, media organizations' parent company, $80,000 to cover a portion of legal fees. The city agreed to craft a comprehensive open records policy, that included the transparency office. Later that month, Cox Media Group donated the $80,000 to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation to promote open government training to public officials statewide.
Transparency officer highlights
- Responsible for oversight of city compliance with open records law; can investigate abuses in conjunction with the city attorney; can hire assistant officers "as needed" to fulfill the open government responsibilities.
- Appointed by the mayor and approved by council to a three-year term. Removal can only be for cause and a majority vote of council or a super-majority, or 10-member vote, of council.
- Officer to create a web portal for the public to submit requests. The officer will post public documents responsive to those requests.
- Officer will report on the city's compliance to City Council and the mayor each quarter.
- Officer will set policy regarding city officials' use of private communications devices, messaging apps and email accounts for official business, including procedures regarding the retrieval of those records.