This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative to remind Americans that their government is supposed to be open; a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Most government officials follow the law, though some tend to make getting information more difficult than others.
If you’re confused about what is and isn’t public record, a fairly simple rule of thumb to go by is this:
Assume what you want to know or see is public record, because it probably is. If you’re told it’s not, ask why and ask the person telling you that it isn’t to show you the state law saying it’s not.
Because I said so or because we don’t operate that way isn’t a valid excuse.
Similarly, meetings are supposed to be open and government actions are supposed to be conducted in open meetings. Votes taken behind closed doors are illegal. Georgia law, by the way, allows only three exceptions to the open meetings requirement: legal, personnel and real estate. It doesn’t require the meetings be closed, but it does allow them to be closed.
There are a number of organizations dedicated to upholding the tradition of open government, from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation to the Georgia Press Association. Some provide handbooks on public meetings and records. You can visit the Georgia First Amendment Foundation website at www.gfaf.org.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from “A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government” from the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia. It tells you who is subject to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws.
“Both the Open Meetings Law and the Open Records Law apply to all entities which are an “agency” of the state or local government in Georgia.
“In addition, the Public Records Law applies to associations whose members are themselves “agencies” if the association itself receives a substantial part of its budget from agencies.
“The term “agency” is broadly defined in O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(a)(1) to include the following:
• Every state department, agency, board, bureau, commission, public corporation and authority;
• Every county, municipal corporation, school district and other political subdivision;
• Every department, agency, board, bureau, commission, authority and similar body of each county, municipal corporation or other political subdivision of the state;
• Every city, county, regional or other authority established pursuant to state law;
• Non-profit organizations that receive more than one-third of their funds from a direct allocation of state funds from the governing authority of an agency.
• All private entities that carry out governmental functions are subject to the Sunshine Laws.”
Sadly, there are concerns that state legislators are trying to weaken the state’s Sunshine laws through changes to House Bill 397, which was initially supposed to be a step toward more transparency. It bears watching by all who care about open government.