The Atlanta City Council on Monday approved an ordinance designed to reform how the city responds to requests made under the Georgia Open Records Act. The Open Records Act gives the public the right to access to government documents and records.
Here are five things to know about the changes for Atlanta:
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Before the ordinance was passed, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed frequenlty boasted that his administration was the most transparent in history. But the city was actually singled out by national organizations for how it handled public records under Reed. 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. The year before, Reed was a finalist for the award. 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. Reed left office in January when his two-term tenure ended.
REPORTING PAVED WAY FOR REFORM
After reporting from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News showed city staff had intentionally frustrated access to public records and made misrepresentations about public records, the two media organizations filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asking him to intervene. Carr’s office began to mediate talks between the city and the AJC and Channel 2. The council passed the ordinance last week. The law has been described as national model for other governments to follow.
A MEASURE OF INDEPENDENCE
The law creates a new position: transparency officer, who oversees the production of public records in response to an requests made under the Georgia Open Records Act. The transparency officer is a mayoral appointee, confirmed by the council for a three-year term. The city official can only be fired by the mayor for cause, and the reason must be described in writing.
PRIVATE DEVICES SUBJECT TO SEARCH
The ordinance explicitly makes messages involving public business on private cellphones and other devices subject to the Open Records Act. While the AJC and Channel 2 were in negotiations with the city about the ordinance, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ press office initially denied an AJC public records request for text messages between Bottoms and Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, arguing that because APS had already produced the messages, the city didn’t have to produce the records. The city eventually turned over the records after the AJC argued that the city’s position was inconsistent with the Georgia Open Records Act.
IT’S NOT THE FINAL WORD ON THE MATTER
The ordinance also mandates the creating of a web portal for the public to track open records requests and annual training on the state’s open records law for employees. Still, some don’t think the ordinance goes far enough. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore has argued that for the transparency officer to be truly independent, he or she should not be a mayoral appointee. 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.
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