Georgia Legislature considers overhaul of sunshine laws

Georgia’s sunshine laws, used for decades to open up state and local governments to public scrutiny, expose corruption and let taxpayers know how their money's being spent, could undergo a major overhaul this year for the first time in more than a decade.

A key House subcommittee Wednesday heard testimony on legislation that has been months in the making and vetted by key stakeholders -- representatives of First Amendment groups, the news media, and government commissions, councils and boards.

House Bill 397 is being pushed by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. It was first introduced a year ago but has gone through multiple changes as Olens has presided over a series of meetings with interested parties, including representatives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Olens said new legislation is needed to clarify the law, increase penalties for violators and bring the statute up to date with advances in technology.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla, where he once served as mayor, said if the comprehensive rewrite of the sunshine laws is enacted this session, the statute will be improved and "much more understandable."

A key facet of HB 397 is an increase in potential penalties for those who violate the open records and meetings law. The maximum penalty of $500 would rise to $1,000 and to $2,500 for a repeat offender. Current law allows for only criminal prosecutions against sunshine law violators, subjecting them to potential misdemeanor convictions. The new legislation would allow civil complaints to be filed and for judges to impose sanctions with the increased financial penalties.

The proposal also would provide new exemptions for governing bodies to gather together and not be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. They would include allowing a quorum of members to travel together to attend training seminars, attend the same civil or religious functions and meet with lawmakers or officials at government agencies. These would not apply if the purpose of such gatherings is to evade the law's requirement for open meetings when discussions of official business are taking place.

The last significant overhaul of Georgia's sunshine laws occurred in 1999. Then-Gov. Roy Barnes signed into law requirements for a three-day response time for records requests and the requirement of signed affidavits to justify closing a meeting. Those changes would be retained.

Georgia's sunshine laws pertain only to the executive branch of government. The state's legislative and judicial branches are exempt from the law and would remain so under HB 397.

At Wednesday's hearing, a number of witnesses asked lawmakers to consider more changes to the proposal before the subcommittee takes a vote, expected some time next week.

Jim Grubiak, general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said his members have expressed concern about a provision that would reduce the cost of copies from 25 cents to 10 cents a page. "They feel costs are going up, not going down," he said.

He also urged the committee to consider adding language that would allow for penalties against people who harass agencies with repeated open records requests, such as those who file the same requests multiple times the same day.

Olens said that even though the bill would decrease the per-page cost of copies, it also would allow agencies to charge for the time it takes to make necessary redactions to documents. As for those who bombard agencies with requests, the proposal would allow a commission or council to require a requester who has failed to pay for a previous open records request to pay in advance for subsequent requests, Olens said.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told the panel that Georgia's sunshine laws already work pretty well and, for that reason, "we're always nervous that when changes are made to the law, there becomes a panoply of exceptions."

"We've got to be vigilant in watching this," she said. "We're so nervous we may end up with something that's worse than we've got now."

Key provisions of HB 397

  • Open records requests can be made orally or in writing, but a written request must be filed before invoking the penalty provisions of the law.
  • Maximum fines for violations would be increased from $500 to $1,000, and a $2,500 fine could be imposed if a repeat offender commits another violation within a year after the initial fine or penalty was imposed.
  • If a council, commission or board decides to meet in executive session, the minutes of that session must be taken and preserved for inspection for a court should a dispute arise as to whether closing the meeting to the public was justified.
  • Executive sessions would be permitted when an agency tries to settle a dispute with an aggrieved party through mediation and arbitration, but any resolution agreed to by the agency would not become effective until ratified in a public meeting.
  • Executive sessions would be allowed when an agency considers whether to buy, sell or lease property, but no vote in executive session to authorize a transaction shall be binding until a vote is taken in a public meeting after the identity of the property and the terms of the deal are disclosed.
  • An agency can meet in executive session when discussing hiring or disciplinary matters of employees and interviewing applicants who seek executive positions, but any votes on the matter must be taken in public.
  • The cost of copies would drop from 25 cents to 10 cents per page, but agencies may impose a "reasonable" charge for search, retrieval, redaction and production of  the documents.
  • When the cost of documents is to exceed $25, the agency shall notify the requester of that amount and can defer retrieving the documents until the requester agrees to pay that amount; if the expected costs exceed $500, the agency may insist on prepayment before fulfilling the records request.