Rewrite of Georgia 'sunshine laws' on track

A rewrite of the state's "sunshine laws" received a committee hearing Tuesday, with the changes on track for consideration once lawmakers begin work in January.

The bill, House Bill 397, would increase fines and allow for civil penalties if governmental agencies violate requirements allowing the public, the media and others to access public records and meetings.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who supports the bill, said other changes are meant to update the existing law and "literally put [it] into English." He said the update is coming at a crucial time, with his office on pace to receive 400 complaints this year, nearly double the usual number.

Olens worked with state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, to file the bill earlier this year. It is likely to be tweaked, as Olens and others work to find a balance between the need for transparency and the ability of government to do its job. A number of individuals and agencies, including the Georgia Press Association, spoke in favor of the overall changes. Representatives of local municipalities said they just want the laws to be clear.

"Open records and open meetings law is probably one of the keystones of open government and transparency in government," Powell said.

In the current law, the criminal penalty for open meetings violations is a misdemeanor with a $500 fine. For an open records violation, it is a misdemeanor with a $100 fine.

The bill proposes to increase fines for meetings violations to $1,000. It would also tack on $2,500 for each additional violation within 12 months of the original fine. Fines for records violations would increase to the same amounts and conditions. The bill also would clarify and update legal language and descriptions, and address the use of updated technology and communications, including electronic records.

The House Judiciary Civil Committee held the hearing a month after Olens' office sanctioned the Atlanta Public Schools board and put it on a year's probation for violations related to Georgia's open meetings and public records laws.

The extraordinary oversight stemmed from a series of complaints by city residents and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about both the board and the administration of then-Superintendent Beverly Hall.

The board agreed that it and key district staff members will take additional training about state law. Olens' office will also closely monitor the board over the next year to make sure it complies. If it does not, the attorney general says he will take the board to court.