Georgia’s legislature is debating a major overhaul of its sunshine laws…
House Bill 397 is being pushed by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. It was first introduced a year ago but has gone through multiple changes as Olens has presided over a series of meetings with interested parties, including representatives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Olens said new legislation is needed to clarify the law, increase penalties for violators and bring the statute up to date with advances in technology.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla, where he once served as mayor, said if the comprehensive rewrite of the sunshine laws is enacted this session, the statute will be improved and “much more understandable.”
A key facet of HB 397 is an increase in potential penalties for those who violate the open records and meetings law. The maximum penalty of $500 would rise to $1,000 and to $2,500 for a repeat offender. Current law allows for only criminal prosecutions against sunshine law violators, subjecting them to potential misdemeanor convictions. The new legislation would allow civil complaints to be filed and for judges to impose sanctions with the increased financial penalties.
The proposal also would provide new exemptions for governing bodies to gather together and not be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. They would include allowing a quorum of members to travel together to attend training seminars, attend the same civil or religious functions and meet with lawmakers or officials at government agencies. These would not apply if the purpose of such gatherings is to evade the law’s requirement for open meetings when discussions of official business are taking place.