Atlanta unveils new policy to improve compliance with open records law

Eighteen months after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News filed a formal Attorney General complaint alleging repeated violations of the state’s open records law, the city of Atlanta has a formal policy instructing employees and officials on how to respond to public records request.

Among other things, seven-page policy, which was unveiled Thursday, requires that all city employees and officials receive yearly training in the state’s Open Records Act, and encourages anyone who witnesses a violation of the law to report it.

Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard Griffiths said the policy closely reflects what the law already requires.

“The question is whether the city is going to be able to build a sustainable culture of open government,” Griffiths said.

The policy went into effect on Oct. 1.

“Most of what we have is public, and unless we can point to a reason why it’s not, we should be providing it,” said Kristen Denius, the city’s transparency officer.

The new policy, along with the transparency officer position, is the product of months of mediation between the administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

Open records laws are the primary means by which journalists and the public hold elected leaders accountable.

Former Mayor Kasim Reed kept questions about his administration’s dealings at bay by routinely blocking access to records that should have been made public, according to the April 11, 2018 complaint filed on behalf of the news organizations.

Since Reed left office, the AJC and Channel 2 have published stories detailing how members of Reed’s inner circle kept secret a subpoena from federal prosecutors, fabricated legal invoices and concealed the overdue water bills — all of which are considered public documents under Georgia law.

The news organizations’ reporting prompted the state attorney general to open Georgia’s first-ever criminal investigation of violations of the state Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, Reed’s press secretary, faces two misdemeanor counts of violating the open records law and is expected to go to trial in December or January.

Text messages show Garland instructed a subordinate to “drag this out” and “be as unhelpful as possible” in responding to requests for water billing records of city officials, including Bottoms.

In April 2018, three months after Reed left office, the organizations filed a complaint alleging that there was “a pervasive culture of non-compliance” with the open records law under Reed. The news organizations and the city formally settled the complaint about a year ago, but the AJC and Channel 2 continued to help shape the city’s new policy — which requires the Transparency Officer to audit the city’s compliance with the law and provide quarterly reports to the mayor and city council.

Employees that are found to violate the law will be subject to discipline, including termination, according to the policy.

Denius has worked for the city for 19 years, including eight years under Reed in the law department.

Griffiths said that he’s giving Denius the benefit of the doubt. He noted that Bottoms’ City Attorney, Nina Hickson, rebuffed pressure from the Reed administration to not release a copy of the contract of the Beltline CEO when she served as the Beltline’s general counsel.

Denius acknowledged that the city has had issues with open records, but said that all of the city’s top leaders were committed to the improvements.

“I think we have a very unique situation here,” Denius said. “I’ve had conversations with the top people on the executive side and the top people on the legislative side and everybody is really interested in making this work a lot better.”

Denius said the policy — which also applies to city council members — is the first time the city has provided employees and officials with a written road map of expectations for responding to records request.

“We are not making any drastic changes to what they should have been doing already,” Denius said. “So hopefully this will not present a big adjustment in behavior, but it does provide a guide and a resource.”

Denius said that many disputes over open records requests are the result of poor communication.

The new policy attempts to address that issue. When a request will be time consuming or seemingly expensive, the policy instructs employees to contact the person requesting the records to ask for clarity or if the request can be narrowed.

Denius said she couldn’t promise that all employees and officials would act in good faith.

“I can’t prevent people from doing the wrong thing,” Denius said. “But what can tell you is that if I find out they are doing the wrong thing, there will be consequences.”