Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens last week attended a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, where he urged further strengthening and refining of the state’s open meetings and open records laws. The General Assembly, in the last regular legislative session, took some steps in that direction.
The AG is proposing a bill that would increase fines for violations and be more specific about government functions that are open to public scrutiny and accountability. Also in Olens’ bill is a provision that officials who go into executive session must keep notes of the meeting that a judge can review in the event that citizens challenge its legality.
The attorney general correctly observed that public confidence in government depends on transparency. And it probably comes as little surprise to anybody that open records law is high on the public and political radar after the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, with reports of educators and administrators concealing and destroying records.
Olens’ idea is dead on, as far as it goes, and the state’s top law enforcement official sounds sincerely committed to the principle of open and ethical government. But there are a couple of obvious questions.
One has to do with the fact that state lawmakers are exempt from open records law, and it goes like this: Why are state lawmakers exempt from open records law?
Members of the General Assembly are not required to disclose the same records required of state agencies that answer to the executive branch. Maybe there are sound reasons why certain legislative functions and correspondence need not be part of the public record. Lawmakers must be free to speak their minds in discussions of legislation.
But for the most part the business of legislation, and certainly lawmakers’ financial records, should be subject to public scrutiny. If Georgia legislators want credit for tough new ethics laws, there’s a simple course -- make themselves subject to those laws.
“Only when there is some other public good that clearly outweighs the benefit of openness,” said David Hudson, an attorney for the Georgia Press Association, “only then should there be an exception.”
The other question is how compliance is going to be monitored and enforced when the state’s ethics oversight panel is already overworked, understaffed and underfunded. Olens said his office will probably get more than 400 open records complaints this year, compared to an average over the last few years of about 250. In Georgia, government ethics oversight has become a supply and demand problem.
Still, the proposals to impose stiffer fines and require detailed minutes of closed meetings are hard to argue against. When the next regular session convenes, among the first orders of legislative business should be passing these laws, adequately funding the agency charged with enforcing them and agreeing to abide by them. Don’t bet on that last one.