New bill aims to bring clarity to state’s fuzzy sunshine law

“Open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society.” That’s a direct quote from HB 397, a bill that updates Georgia’s sunshine laws to make them more open and effective and easier for non-lawyers to understand.

Georgia’s Open Records and Open Meetings Acts are strong laws with many valuable components, but they have not been substantially updated in well over a decade. During that time, adverse court decisions have pared back certain transparency provisions, and confusing structure and wording have left non-lawyers unclear as to many of their rights and responsibilities.

For example, one recent ruling of the Court of Appeals held that final votes on real estate acquisitions could occur in closed meetings. Another decision held that if a meeting occurs without proper notice, no violations can arise!

Current law also leaves unclear the public’s right to access electronic records, especially when held in databases and advanced formats. The law’s requirements for how a government should respond to records requests is scattered throughout several code sections. Although expensive private lawyers may be expert in its inner workings, the average member of the public has a hard time just reading the law and understanding their rights. The confusion surrounding the current law is evidenced by the approximately 400 complaints the Attorney General’s office receives each year from citizens.

For these reasons, we have spent the last year working to craft a thorough update to the sunshine laws. The first draft was introduced late last legislative session, and countless hours have been spent since then with dozens of stakeholders and legislators in meetings and hearings, revising, amending and improving the bill.

Today, we are proud of the product of all this work. We have a bill that, while not perfect, is a big improvement. It makes clear that final votes have to be taken in public, including on real estate transactions. It clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request. It lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page. It enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations. It requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed. And it provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing us to bring civil or criminal actions against violators with increased fines so that they serve as a meaningful deterrent instead of just a slap on the wrist.

This important legislation has passed the state House and awaits a vote in the Senate. We hope you will encourage your state legislator to support this bill and advance the cause of open government.

Sam Olens is Georgia’s attorney general. Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, introduced HB 397 in the Georgia House.

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