Georgia has had “sunshine laws” for decades, but in truth, they’ve been weighted in favor of public officials, not the public. They have been relatively easy to evade, both in terms of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. And they have almost no teeth, with a penalty for violations that amounts to barely a slap on the wrist.
That all needs to change, and new state Attorney General Sam Olens is pushing to achieve it.
Olens campaigned last summer on the need to strengthen the sunshine laws. Now, to his credit, he is fulfilling that campaign promise, or trying to. He unveiled last week a sweeping makeover of Georgia’s sunshine laws that would make them more effective tools for the public and media to keep track of what their elected officials are doing.
“While traveling around the state last year, I heard repeatedly from concerned citizens that our current Open Meetings and Open Records laws are more confusing than constructive,” Olens said in news release. “Georgians deserve a clear, coherent law that enforces good government practices and allows them to hold their elected officials accountable. I believe this legislation makes great strides toward that goal.”
To start with, Olens would make clear that a board cannot evade the law by breaking into smaller groups that don’t constitute a quorum. Olens, who spent a decade as chairman of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, thereby had a ringside seat as the Marietta City Council did exactly that on numerous several occasions - break into smaller groups to evade the sunshine laws. ... Olens appears to have watched — and learned.
Olens would require officials who go into executive session during a public meeting keep notes that a judge could review if the matter goes to court. He would reaffirm that requests for information would have to be answered within three business days. And he would remove ambiguous provisions in the Open Records law that in the past have caused delays in answering such requests.
More important, Olens’ proposal, which was introduced in the house by Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, would stiffen the fine for those who violate the sunshine laws. The penalty would be raised to $1,000 for violations, with fines of up to $2,500 for each subsequent offense. At present, the maximum fine is just $100 for Open Records violations and $500 for Open Meetings violations.
Here’s a suggestion we hope Olens and Powell pick up on: Their bill should require that violators pay the fines from their own pockets, not with tax dollars.
Olens’ measure would bring clarity and a sharper edge to a law that has been fuzzy and too easy for public officials to ignore. The public is ever-more demanding of transparency and accountability these days, and the sunshine law is arguably the most effective tool available to ensure that. That’s why it is so important that those laws be strengthened, and now.