Opinion: Welcome moves toward transparency

The Georgia Open Records Act gives the public the right to access to government documents and records. The Atlanta City Council on Monday approved an ordinance designed to reform how the city responds to requests made under the state act. (2017 AJC FILE PHOTO)

The Georgia Open Records Act gives the public the right to access to government documents and records. The Atlanta City Council on Monday approved an ordinance designed to reform how the city responds to requests made under the state act. (2017 AJC FILE PHOTO)

Stephen Deere, a new Atlanta city government reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, joined the paper last October. He put in his first open records request with the city even before his first day on the job.

He requested legal invoices, settlements and an expenditure database. And despite the law that says most open records should be produced within three days, he got no records in three days. In fact, he didn't get any records for more than three months — until outgoing Mayor Kasim Reed left office after new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected.

Richard Belcher, an investigative reporter with Channel 2 Action News, in April 2017 put in a request for travel records related to an upcoming trip to South Africa for Mayor Reed and a city delegation. He was told no records existed. In July, two months after the trip and far too many follow-up requests from Belcher, AJC/Channel 2 attorney Michael Caplan made a formal demand to the city attorney and the city coughed up the records. It was clear some had existed at the time of Belcher's original request.

These delays of open records responses by the city of Atlanta were not particularly unusual.

Reporters requesting records were often stonewalled and apparently lied to under Reed’s administration. Noncompliance with the open records law was in many ways the norm.

If you are wondering why this is relevant to you, I want to point out that these records that were withheld by the city belong to you and other taxpayers. Public access to the records of government and transparency of the workings of government help keep our public officials honest.

It’s unfortunate, but the power government has over people can lead some power-hungry officials to use their offices for personal gain. Not all officials are corrupt, of course, but the temptations of power are mighty.

Sunshine is an antidote to those temptations. So while you may not ever make an open records request, the fact that you can is essential to the way our democracy works. The press asks for these records on your behalf. It’s our job to serve as watchdogs over government institutions, as the framers of the Constitution recognized in the First Amendment.

That's why the AJC and Channel 2 took the unusual step in April of filing a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, describing a broken system for fulfilling public records at Atlanta City Hall and seeking Carr's assistance in getting compliance. These kinds of complaints are essentially precursors to a lawsuit and tell the party involved: Fix the system or we will sue you, and we are encouraging the attorney general to join that lawsuit. Few citizens ever file these types of lawsuits. They leave it to newsrooms to fight these battles on their behalf.

The AJC/Channel 2 complaint to the attorney general listed nine more examples in addition to Belcher’s request for travel records. The complaint alleged a “culture of political interference” with open records requests made to Reed’s administration.

“Recent revelations illustrate that public officials have interfered with, caused delay in, or intentionally obstructed the production of public records — particularly when WSB-TV or the AJC sought public information that city officials perceived as politically embarrassing or inconvenient,” the complaint said. “Even typical requests for readily available public records often go unfulfilled for weeks — or, in some cases, months — because of a pervasive culture of non-compliance.”

The smoking gun in the complaint was a series of text exchanges from one city official to another, recommending that a communications officer "be as unhelpful as possible" in fulfilling an open records request, "drag this out as long as possible. And provide information in the most confusing format available."

That contradicts the law in so many ways. Officials are to provide records within three days in most instances, and to provide them as fast as reasonably possible even if more than three days is required. Officials are certainly not supposed to look for ways to thwart the law. The actions suggested by the texts were so outrageous that Carr opened a criminal investigation, which has not concluded.

The preamble to Georgia’s open records law describes its purpose: “The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions.”

The good news is that the city did not fight the complaint. Bottoms campaigned on a more transparent administration and acted quickly after being elected to separate herself from the Reed administration, which is under federal investigation for corruption. Records released by the Bottoms administration since Reed left office raise significant questions about the extent of that corruption.

After the complaint was filed with Carr, Bottoms hired former attorneys general Sam Olens and Thurbert Baker to represent the city. Both are strong advocates for government transparency. Olens strengthened penalties for violations of the state’s open records law while he was attorney general in 2012, and Baker successfully sued two local civic groups over records involving the city’s bids for the 2009 Super Bowl and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Bottoms proposed legislation to create a transparency officer position to oversee open records compliance and provide the independence requested in the AJC/Channel 2 complaint. Caplan, Olens and City Attorney Nina Hickson and Carr's office worked together over the summer to draft the law. Last week, the Atlanta City Council, at Bottoms' request, passed a sweeping ordinance that calls for hiring that transparency officer, training all city officials, creating a website to track open records compliance and penalizing those who break the law. It also clarifies that personal devices used for city official business are within the scope of the open records law.

The next step is one the ordinance calls for — the city intends to create “best-in-class policies, procedures and protocols” to make sure the ordinance works effectively in the day-to-day operations of the city. Caplan, Olens and the city are working with Carr’s office to draft that policy.

The ordinance and policy could make Atlanta a model of transparency for other governments to follow. I’m unaware of any legislation as strong elsewhere in Georgia, or in many states across the nation.

Bottoms’ and the city council’s efforts can help restore trust in the operations of the city of Atlanta. And that will be a welcome change.