The Atlanta City Council on Monday will consider an ordinance that creates a transparency officer, requires mandatory annual open records training for employees and establishes a public website that tracks public records requests.
The new law was the result of months of negotiations between the city and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News over reforms to correct what the news organizations described as a “a pervasive culture of non-compliance” with the Georgia Open Records Act in a civil complaint filed with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.
“This ordinance is one critical part of the resolution that we seek to achieve,” said Michael A. Caplan, an attorney representing the AJC and Channel 2 at a work session of the City Councils’ Finance/Executive Committee earlier this month.
In an April complaint filed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, the news organizations outlined 10 examples of alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act dating to July 2016, under former Mayor Kasim Reed. The media outlets requested mediation to remedy the repeated violations of state law.
The organizations also reported extensively on what legal experts said revealed potentially criminal behavior within Reed’s communications and law departments. His administration delayed production of public records and created documents resembling legal invoices in an effort to satisfy an AJC records request last year.
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The reporting prompted the first Georgia Bureau of Investigation criminal probe into open records violations in the state’s history. Those findings were turned over to Carr’s office this week for potential prosecution.
Following the criminal investigation and the civil complaint, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in April hired two former Georgia Attorneys General, Sam Olens and Thurbert Baker, both known as advocates for the right to access public records and past winners of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Weltner Award.
The next month, Bottoms announced legislation that creates a transparency officer to ensure compliance with the open records act and establishes a website that will allow the public to track public records — a proposal that served as the basis for the ordinance the council is scheduled to consider on Monday.
The latest version of the ordinance protects employees who report that they have been directed to violate the open records act under the Georgia Whistleblower Act. It also gives the transparency officer a three-year term during which he or she can only be fired for cause described in writing — a provision designed to prevent political interference.
And it explicitly makes messages involving public business on private cell phones and other devices subject to the open records act.
The ordinance comes as the city staggers under the weight of a three-year federal corruption investigation at City Hall. Monday’s scheduled vote is part of a larger effort to distance the Bottoms administration’s ethics and public records policies from those of Reed — her predecessor and mentor during her bid for mayor last year.
“This ordinance will set the new standard for best practices in municipal government,” Bottoms said in a statement Friday.
Reed’s administration drew national criticism from open government advocates.
In June, the national journalism organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, awarded the city of Atlanta its 2018 Golden Padlock Award given to the most secretive government agency or individual in the U.S. Reed was a finalist for the award the year before.
Atlanta was one of five cities that earned an F grade in a 2013 report from the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund that rates 30 of America’s largest cities for making government data available online. Reed also withheld from the public a federal grand jury subpoena showing that the federal investigation involved the mayor’s office and not just the Department of Procurement.
Olens has said publicly that if the council approves the ordinance it will be a “national model.”
But the transparency officer would still be under the mayor’s office and be appointed by the mayor — which some argue makes the position less independent.
The ordinance that is supposed to be on Monday’s City Council agenda probably won’t be the last word on the subject. Council President Felicia Moore said she is working on legislation to create a compliance office that reports to an independent board.
Many of the transparency officer’s duties described in the ordinance would also full under the compliance office that Moore said she intends to propose later this fall.
“I wasn’t going to stand in the way of them [the council] considering what they had before them,” Moore said.
After the compliance legislation is introduced, Moore said the council could decide to fold the transparency officer into the office of compliance.
“My draft will include those types of activities,” Moore said.