Some lawmakers turn spotlight on Georgia Legislature’s own transparency

The Georgia Legislature has long tried to control public access to its inner workings, but a battle over transparency issues has spilled into the open this year.

And it involves something as simple as a camera, a mobile phone and a $20 desk tripod.

Rogue senators are using their own phones and streaming apps such as Periscope to live-cast committee meetings that the chamber does not broadcast online, causing some committee chairmen to announce new rules about if or how people with cameras can record meetings.

In the House, which does broadcast its committee meetings, some lawmakers who take pride in being the “open” chamber in the Capitol still stand behind rules that shield their records from public disclosure.

Capitol leaders say they are trying to balance being accessible to the public while honoring the idea of decorum and tradition. Both chambers continue to exempt themselves from the state’s open records laws, but advocates say changes are needed at the Capitol.

“This thing has just gotten so sideways it’s terrible,” said Woodstock resident Jack Staver, who got caught up last week in the Senate’s committee broadcast ban after bringing in a palm-size camera and a monopod camera pole to record the chamber’s Rules Committee.

Staver said first a clerk, then committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and finally Secretary of the Senate David Cook came to him and demanded he stop or move to the back of the room. At least a half-dozen state police officers came into the room to make him comply, both he and witnesses said, with officers watching him from the back row and another officer staying near his wife, who kept her seat at the front of the room.

“It’s supposed to be our house. They’re supposed to be amenable to us at all times,” Staver said, adding that he wasn’t blocking anyone’s view at the front of the room because he had been sitting with his back to a wall. He also asked to be shown committee rules that required him to move, but he said he was not provided a copy of them. “I’ve been going down there for a lot of years,” he said. “They have elevated themselves to something they’re not.”

Out of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide, Georgia’s Senate is one of 26 that does not offer video streaming of committee meetings and one of only 18 that does not offer audio or video of committees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among them, Alabama only provides audio of a few committee rooms, no video. Arkansas’ Senate only broadcasts audio of its chamber proceedings and no audio or video of committees. And both the House and Senate in Colorado only offer audio of committee meetings.

In Georgia, both the House and Senate broadcast daily floor sessions, using feeds from Georgia Public Broadcasting. In the past, Senate leaders have cited the cost of wiring nearly a dozen committee meeting rooms both in the state Capitol and across the street in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building, where many members have offices. They also said they welcome public scrutiny.

But the House has already wired — and broadcasts from — many of those committee rooms, which are used by both chambers. There are only a handful of rooms used exclusively by the Senate.

In response to questions last week, the Senate leadership team, including President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, and Mullis, issued a joint statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“All Senate meetings are open to the public,” it said. “Any citizen is welcome to attend and be part of the process.”

Mullis, too, has taken to having clerks post printed sheets of paper on his committee room’s doors before meetings that say video equipment may only be set up in approved locations “as long as it does not disrupt or distract from the meeting.”

Some rank-and-file members say that’s fine.

"If we don't have rules, if we don't have laws, if we don't have order, we have chaos," said state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus. "The General Assembly is not the place for that kind of chaos. There are rules. We all have to follow the rules. They are laid out perfectly in front of you, and you need to be able to follow them."

Others feel differently. They point out that most meetings are held on weekdays during business hours — which may limit working people’s ability to attend in person. And they also said modern technology has made any argument about the cost of wiring moot. A low-tech solution, they said, could be a staff person using a wireless-capable device and an app.

Or they point to the existing broadcasts using GPB or House equipment and say that agreement could be expanded.

"I just think it's crazy that any time I want to I can turn on my computer and I can watch a Columbus City Council meeting from a year ago, but if I want to see my own committee meetings" to prepare for a floor vote, he can't, said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has been using his mobile phone to stream the meetings he attends as a member.

Even getting into the Capitol can be a chore. It’s only in the past few years that the state Department of Public Safety has required all visitors to the Capitol to pass through metal detectors and show picture identification to enter the Gold Dome or other government buildings. During the legislative session, when school and civic groups often visit, the lines to enter the Capitol or the legislative office building can stretch out onto the sidewalks.

State troopers now patrol hallways and begin shepherding visitors — taxpayers and voters, even — out of the Capitol at 5 p.m unless committee meetings or floor proceedings are still underway.

“Take one of my constituents in Columbus, if they want to know what’s happening in committees in the Senate, if they really want to know, if they want to see it from gavel to gavel, they’ve got to drive from Columbus to Atlanta every day we’re in session and park their car and come to the Capitol and be in the committee room and be in the committee room early enough to get a seat” because they often fill up fast, McKoon said.

One of his most popular broadcasts occurred two weeks ago during a hearing on casinos in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee. With the room at capacity and the overflow spilling into the hall, several people ducked into an empty committee room nearby and pulled up McKoon’s live broadcast to watch in real time what they couldn’t see next door.

“The value to legislators, the value to the media, the value to lots of stakeholders in the process is obvious,” McKoon said. “And, you know, we’re really alone. The House does this. I can watch a live stream of oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court from my computer, but I can’t watch a Senate committee meeting. That just doesn’t make any sense.”

Georgia’s House has long broadcast all full committee meetings and in recent years has started streaming meetings of the Budget Committee’s subcommittee hearings.

House leaders say they are committed to providing access.

"Speaker Ralston and the members of the House encourage Georgians to participate in their legislative process," said Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "Accordingly, the House makes it a priority to stream and archive recordings of our committee meetings — where much of the work of hearing and refining legislation takes place."

But the House’s commitment to transparency has limits, too.

Since legislators get to write laws, they specifically exempt themselves from some that otherwise apply to governments across the state. The General Assembly is not subject to either the Open Meetings Act, which requires advance notice of meetings and specifically spells out when a meeting may be closed to the public, and the Open Records Act, which gives the public the right to inspect government records.

“During my 21 years of work on open government in Georgia, the fact that the General Assembly is exempt from the sunshine laws is one of the more startling and disturbing issues,” said Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “Presumably, the General Assembly would want to maximize access to its proceedings and records — yet the reverse seems to be true. Each time the General Assembly seeks to shield itself from public scrutiny, it merely angers its constituency.”

Rarely has the exemption from the Open Meetings Act been more obvious than last week when on consecutive days a House Public Safety subcommittee held hearings on a series of gun bills with little notice. On Wednesday, even sponsors of bills before the panel said they received an hour or less notice.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who has sponsored a bill to ban some types of weapons, said she never received written notice of Wednesday's hearing, where she asked that her bill be considered another time. On Thursday, Oliver said she was told a few hours in advance that the panel would again consider her bill that afternoon.

The Open Meetings Act requires regularly scheduled meetings to be announced a week in advance and nonregularly scheduled meetings to be announced at least 24 hours in advance. Those deadlines are routinely ignored by House and Senate committees.

Oh, and the Open Meetings Act, too, provides protections for people such as Staver, who wanted to film the Senate Rules Committee. The law says: “The public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public pursuant to subsection (b) of this Code section. Visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.”

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