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Open government revision gets early vote
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ATLANTA — Agencies that illegally withhold records from the public would face more expensive fines under a rewrite of Georgia's open government law that won initial approval Monday from a House subcommittee.

But the legislation would also expand the number of reasons that governments can withhold information and potentially make it easier for public officials to defend themselves against accusations they broke the law. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is a major revision of the state's right-to-know laws, which generally require that government agencies meet in public and allow people to inspect their records.

"I think it's fairly balanced," Powell said.

The approval from a House Judiciary subcommittee marks the first step forward for the bill, which was the product of long-running negotiations between Attorney General Sam Olens, local governments, attorneys and news media outlets. In a rare move, committee members banned cameras from the hearing before taking a vote on the open-government legislation, Lawmakers said people who earlier testified about an unrelated bill matter had been harassed electronically by opponents who video-recorded them.

Olens did not immediately respond to messages on whether he would support the legislation. Some of those involved in the negotiations have objected to recent changes.

Under the proposed law, illegally refusing to release government records would remain a misdemeanor crime, although the maximum fine for a first-time offense would increase from $100 to $1,000. The bill would set a maximum fine of $2,500 for additional offenses.

People seeking documents could also pursue civil, not just criminal, penalties against governments that violate the law. Supporters of the change say that seeking civil penalties is easier than criminal ones since the standard of proof is lower.

The bill would ban officials from charging more than 10 cents per page for copying documents, a decrease from the current 25-cent limit.

Powell's bill would make clear that information kept in government-run databases must be released unless otherwise exempt from disclosure, such as credit card and Social Security numbers. While the current law states that records kept electronically can be inspected, some government agencies refuse when requested to run queries on databases.

The legislation would tighten legal loopholes that have allowed local governments to meet without advertising their gatherings. In compliance with a recent state Supreme Court ruling, the bill would force governments to disclose how each member voted on decisions, not just release a raw tally without names.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which includes The Associated Press, previously warned against several of Powell's proposals, including language that it believes gives stronger protections for governments that refuse to release communications from their attorneys. Earlier proposals would have kept at least some of those documents public. Powell said his latest draft would permit a state judge to decide the question in case of disputes.

"Eliminating such balance in favor of sweeping secrecy for any communications involving attorneys moves the Open Records Act in a direction where government misconduct remains hidden from taxpayers and therefore can never be corrected," the foundation said in a joint letter to lawmakers.

The coalition also objected to language allowing public officials to defend themselves against complaints that they violated the law so long as the officials act in "good faith" not "recklessly." The coalition said those changes would make the bill a "paper tiger."


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