Metro Atlanta governments do a poor job fulfilling requests for public information, a Georgia News Lab investigation has found.
Citizens rely on Georgia’s open records law to get information about their children’s schools, get records about zoning disputes and figures about how their elected officials spend tax money.
But dozens of local Atlanta agencies didn’t comply with the state law when the News Lab, a student-led collaboration with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, sent requests for basic information.
Student journalists sent public records requests to 148 local governments and police agencies in 13 metro counties and found that:
- A third did not meet the state law’s requirement for a response within three business days;
- A quarter only complied with the law after two or three phone calls or follow-up emails;
- Nineteen agencies, or roughly 13 percent, took more than 20 business days to provide the requested records — and four never provided them at all.
William Perry, president of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, an advocacy group, said the findings reveal a “broken system” that harms the public’s perception of government.
“If you’re not complying with the law, it does indeed seem like you’re hiding something,” he said. “Bottom line is that they are government documents paid for by the taxpayers and they should be available to those taxpayers.”
Students requested use of force policies, which detail how police officers can use weapons, from 75 police and sheriff’s departments, and payroll records from 73 local governments. Both types of records are considered public under the law and are normally simple to produce.
Indeed, several agencies had little difficulty with the requests. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office sent its use of force policy 18 minutes after receiving the News Lab’s request — on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The Newnan Police Department and Lake City complied within an hour. Other agencies responded within one business day.
Lt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office said the Sheriff puts a premium on compliance because it can help build trust between the government and citizens.
“If we hide and don’t provide the information that is requested by the media or by citizens, then they’re no longer going to trust us,” said Baker, the public information officer. “We already have trust issues as it is.”
But some of Atlanta’s largest agencies, including sheriff’s offices in both Cobb and DeKalb counties, took months to comply and only did so after repeated prodding.
Lt. Col. Robert Quigley, a spokesman for the Cobb sheriff’s office, said his agency fields 250 public requests a month and that the News Lab request “clearly fell through the cracks.”
“Once it did, it was mismanaged through the process,” he said. “It looks like we had one employee who made a mistake, and then that mistake just kept kind of repeating itself as it went forward, and next thing you know, we’re the last group in metro Atlanta responding to an open records request.”
Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren was “irritated” and “embarrassed” by his agency’s lapse, Quigley said.
“We’re working to put in place some ways to prevent this from happening again in the future,” he said.
Uncooperative, unhelpful employees
Reasons for not producing records ran the gamut, from claims that requests were never received to officials who didn’t return emails or phone calls.
In Jonesboro, follow-up calls to the city administrator — the city’s designated records officer — didn’t go through, and messages could only be left by connecting to the administrator’s voice mail through another employee. The calls were not returned.
Channel 2 Action News later called and left a message. That call too went unreturned, until Channel 2 started calling City Council members. When Channel 2 eventually heard from the clerk, he claimed never to have received the open records request or any messages. Shortly afterward, Jonesboro sent the payroll records, nearly three months after reporters had requested them, and blamed a computer malfunction for the delay.
“I am big on ensuring that all of our operations are transparent to the fullest extent,” the clerk wrote in a cover note accompanying the records. “These types of requests for salary information are received in our office often; hence, we keep a database current and up to date so that when these requests come in they are handled expeditiously.”
Channel 2 arranged to interview the clerk about the delay in providing records at his office in Jonesboro, but he did not show up.
At the Clayton County Police Department, the News Lab request was caught in a spam filter. The contact phone number wouldn’t accept messages. And when reporters finally reached an employee, they were told the records officer had retired. Reporters later learned that the employee had in fact retired — three weeks after the request was submitted.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Capt. Kyle Stevens with Clayton PD, the department’s new records officer.
Confusion about the law, unreasonable fees
News Lab reporters also discovered employees responsible for fulfilling the records requests who were unfamiliar with the legal requirements of providing them.
The city of Morrow said they could not provide payroll records because a third-party vendor handled payroll and the city had “no responsive documents.” Outsourcing work to a third-party is not a valid reason to deny records under Georgia law.
Some delays defied logic. DeKalb County Police responded to an emailed request for the department’s use of force policy with a letter sent through the U.S. postal service. But the letter did not contain the requested policy. Instead, it referred the reporter to the department’s website where it said the policy could be located.
In a follow up call, the department’s records officer told the reporter he’d been directed to the website to avoid having to charge him for printing out the policy. The officer also said responses have to be provided on paper for the department’s record keeping purposes.
Some agencies provided records quickly and free of charge, while others sought fees of more than $50. The city of Fayetteville estimated that it might cost $430 to allow reporters to access payroll records that it said could not be provided electronically. Copying the records would incur additional fees. Other agencies sought lower fees but required money orders sent by mail for sums as small as 60 cents.
Carolyn Carlson, Assistant Director of the Journalism and Emerging Media program at Kennesaw State University, said large fee requests by agencies can be a negotiation tactic.
“Sometimes, when they give you a large amount, (it’s) because they want you to narrow your request,” said Carlson, who led audits of open record law compliance in 2008 and 2010.
In other cases, Carlson said, when they ask for a lot of money, “usually they’re just trying to get rid of you.”
“There’s not a whole lot you can do if they decide to charge you a lot,” she said.
What’s a citizen to do?
Carlson also said that compliance with open records requests has worsened since many records became digitized.
“Back when they had paper records, it was pretty easy to get crime incident reports, for instance,” she said. “But since they put it on computers, frankly their computer systems don’t make it easy to get to them. So instead of them automatically giving them to you when you ask for them, they have to open it up and redact information that’s not supposed to be made public and then give it to you, and it’s a pain in the neck for them to do that and so many of them will just say, ‘No, we’re not going to get it to you.’”
Hollie Manheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which educates officials and the public about government transparency in Georgia, said the state’s laws are generally strong, compared to the rest of the country.
“But there’s no enforcement mechanisms,” Manheimer said, “and that’s been a consistent problem since I started this work 21 years ago.”
Under the law, Georgia citizens who are stymied by agencies that refuse or delay the release of records, or charge excessive fees, can file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office.
Stefan Ritter, a former Senior Assistant Attorney General who headed the program that oversees open records law compliance, says that a lack of funding for the enforcement by the Attorney General’s office limits the law’s effectiveness.
“The AG’s office is a very small office, extremely underfunded, it needs more money to be able to do everything it might do,” said Ritter, who now heads the state ethics commission.
Carlson of KSU says the key to better compliance is ensuring agency employees know the law. “The biggest thing we can do right now is improve training and not just for department directors but for their employees as well,” she said.
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