Georgia Guv Signs Huge FOI Reform Bill Into Law!

Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping revision of the state’s Open Records Act that strengthens the public’s access to records and documents.

House Bill 397, which took effect upon Deal’s signature, is the first major rewrite of Georgia’s sunshine laws in more than a decade. New provisions in the open records and meetings laws increase fines for offenders. The maximum penalty of $500 is now $1,000, and offenders who commit repeat violations within a year face fines of up to $2,500.

Previously, the sunshine laws allowed only criminal complaints to be filed against suspected violators, meaning a prosecutor would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The rewrite now allows the filing of civil complaints, which have a lower burden of proof.

The rewrite also would provide new exemptions for some gatherings of governing bodies, such as allowing a quorum of members to attend the same civic function, receive training or visit government agencies — provided no official business is discussed or transpires. It also reduces the cost of most documents disclosed under the Open Records Act from 25 cents to 10 cents per page…

Irony Alert! Georgia Lawmakers Close Hearing…on Sunshine Reform!

Because Georgia lawmakers are catching a ton of flak after a witness who equated domestic partner benefits with the End Times apparently has…well, received some less-than-flattering response, the organizers of a hearing aimed at making government more open (?) closed a hearing and banned video coverage. Seriously.

Before voting Monday to advance an overhaul of the state’s open government law, a House subcommittee voted to banish the taking of photographs and video from the hearing.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, made the motion, saying that video taken at a prior hearing had been put on the Internet and used to harass a witness.

Willard later identified the witness as Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who testified in opposition to House Bill 630, which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in the public workplace.

Ditty said one reason her group opposed HB 630 is that it would extend the same protections to a variety of sexual orientations, including pedophilia and necrophilia.

After the hearing, Wendell said he cherishes the right to free speech and said the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from any witness, regardless of his or her opinions and positions. But he said he was upset at what happened with Ditty’s testimony going viral on the Internet.

“This seemed to me to be more about intimidating people,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

At the hearing, Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said those taking videos of witnesses needed to act responsibly. But he said he opposed Willard’s motion because it infringed on the freedom of the press.

“We do have a Constitution … and that kind of interferes with that,” Bruce said of the motion.

If you choose to appear at a public legislative hearing and make your group’s views extremely public, then, to paraphrase the United States Supreme Court, you have thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion…shame on the pols for a cowardly reaction to a perfectly predictable response.

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Georgia to Overhaul Sunshine Laws?

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.

Today’s Logical Leap of the Day, Brought to You By WSB-TV

This is a gem. From WSB in Atlanta:

The State Attorney General Sam Olens told Channel 2 Action News that someone is using a local student to request information that could aide in a terrorist attack on local law enforcement.

The Georgia International Law Enforcement Program at Georgia State University is a program that sends local officers abroad to learn from international officers, including Israelis, about fighting terrorism. Officers also teach international officers about civil rights and how to deal with protesters.

Recently, a Georgia State student group, the Progressive Student Alliance, submitted an open records request asking for information on the GILEE program, including the names of officers, where they were training and what, specifically, they were learning.

Olens told Channel 2 Action News anchor John Bachman that information was not only sensitive, but could be potentially deadly.

Tim Dalton with the Progressive Student Alliance told Bachman, “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a student. I’m a student that is concerned about programs in my community, which is the Georgia State community.”

And from there, we have the leap:

Olens told Bachman what the group is requesting goes beyond basic knowledge of the program and poses a security threat.

“Students have the right to expression, they have rights under the First Amendment like everyone else, but when you are specifically asking for data that explicitly harm law enforcement, that is no longer naive or innocent,” said Olens.

Olens suggested someone is using the Georgia State students to obtain this information.

Bachman asked Olens, “Who has been prompting these students to make these request?”

“I’m not going to speculate,” replied Olens.

“But do you think it’s somebody bigger?” asked Bachman.

“Absolutely. Students don’t wake up one morning and say I wonder where the Dunwoody police officers are receiving training in Israel on terrorism. I wonder where the bus starts from and goes to on day four of the program. I don’t think that is something a student groups comes up with,” said Olens.

So, we have a student group asking about the propriety of a campus-based entity that sends law enforcement officers from the Atlanta ‘burbs off to foreign lands to teach and learn. Could it be cover for a nice junket? Sure could? Could it be a completely legitimate, heart-warming story about officers training officers? Sure could. That’s called scrutiny, boys. It’s a really good part of democracy…keeps people accountable and all that.

The leap was buried so deeply, though, that it takes a minute to find. Do you see it?

“…someone is using a local student to request information that could aide in a terrorist attack on local law enforcement.”

Really? How? By releasing information about the groups who have already been on the trips? How does that endanger a soul? The only argument that can close that hole is the time-worn trope that ANY release of ANY information about this suddenly top-secret operation endangers them IMMEDIATELY. I ain’t buying.

Oh! and the best part? Look at the cutline under the video:

Students Ask For Information That Could Aid Terror Attack

Wow. Way to swallow the BS, WSB.


FOI Reform in Georgia Looking Good….

A promising start to FOI reform in Georgia, my home state…

Making good on a campaign promise to strengthen Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, including the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican, has proposed a series of significant changes to both laws.

According to a review of the current version of the proposal, HB 397, which was marked up by the House Judiciary Committee on March 10, 2011, the proposal would make many significant changes, some of which would directly address some of the ongoing issues involving secrecy and lack of transparency with the City Council of Atlanta.

“I have had the pleasure of working with the Attorney General long before either of us was elected to our current positions,” said State Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla). “I look forward to joining him in working with local governments, agencies and the press to increase transparency and open government while safeguarding legitimate government interests.”

Olens expects the legislation to be to taken up during the special summer session on redistricting, for possible consideration by the legislature in 2012.

First, the proposed legislation would ban secret votes.

The City of Atlanta has been a top culprit in taking secret votes.  APN’s News Editor, the present writer, is currently engaged in litigation with the City for a secret vote taken by Council Members at the February 2010 Council Retreat at the Georgia Aquarium.

Two courts–Fulton County Superior Judge Christopher Brasher and Georgia Court of Appeals, with Chris McFadden authoring–have ruled that the way the law is currently written, based upon a plain language interpretation, allows for secret votes so long as they are not roll-call votes.

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Georgia Business Development Deal Dies…

The Georgia bill that would have afforded secrecy to government and private business looking to locate in Georgia is dead for this session.

Senate Bill 159, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, will not be considered for passage this session, according to Matthew Colvin, the senator’s spokesman. Today was Crossover Day, the point in the legislative session where if a bill hasn’t received a vote in either chamber it dies.


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Another Nasty Little FOI Exemption On Tap, This Time in Georgia

Secret economic development deals, anyone? Sweetheart tax deals, land giveaways, and who knows what else could be wrapped up and placed under the tree?

The Coastal Courier in Georgia has the scoop:

Isn’t there enough secrecy in government? Apparently not, according to Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who earlier in the current legislative session introduced a bill that would curtail transparency in government by allowing governmental and quasi-governmental agencies to keep certain information from the public.
Under the legislation, dubbed SB 159, entities such as city councils, county commissions and development authorities would not have to disclose what businesses and industries they might be working to attract and how they might plan to use taxpayers’ money to court these businesses.

The language in Senate Bill 159 actually first reared its head six years ago in a similar measure, House Bill 218, which passed in the House but died in the Senate amid much public outcry.

New Georgia AG Wants Sunshine Revamp

From the Augusta Chronicle

Attorney General Sam Olens announced his is taking a more proactive approach than his predecessors in championing a broad legislative agenda, including a rewrite of the state’s Sunshine Law and seeking new powers to prosecute human trafficking and mortgage fraud…

The rewrite of the Sunshine Law, also known as the Open Meetings/Open Records Act, hasn’t been introduced. In it, he intends to update it with recent court decisions and clarify the language.

“The current law is really incomprehensible,” he said. “The press can understand it because they work with it every day, but it needs to be clear for John Q. Citizen.”

One change in the law he intends is boosting to $1,000 the fine for government officials who improperly meet secretly or refuse to turn over records covered under the law.


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