Attorney General Sam Olens visited the Atlanta Press Club to discuss the complete overhaul of Georgia’s open meeting and records laws Tuesday.
The restructured sunshine laws include some major changes. However, some are still asking for further improvements. When Associated Press reporter, Errin Haines, jokingly questioned why the revisions did not include the legislature, Olens candidly said, “Because I wanted the bill to pass.”
The changes, which came into effect on April 17, include: law simplification, which the Attorney General referred to as “user-friendliness”; limits on local government meetings conducted via telephone; and clarification on the definitions of the terms executive session and meeting. The law also alters the public’s ability to obtain open records by reducing the cost of a reproduction to 10 cents a page, incorporating the NASCAR ruling, and increasing violator fines by up to $1,000.
“As soon as I got into office, I got emails from journalists saying they were having issues getting records,” Olens told the Press Club’s room of journalists, businesspeople, and lawyers.
According to Olens’ office, more than 250 complaints about open records and meetings were received in 2010. The Attorney General’s office received more than 400 complaints in 2011.
Olens cited Savannah’s City Council as an example of the violators he now has the authority to take to court. In 2011, the Savannah City Council decided to give $50,000 to a city alderman for flood damage repairs from within an executive session.
“Here you had a $50,000 payment. You had no vote, you had an improper executive session. You had no policy that allowed any staff member or elected official to cut a check, but they did,” Olens told the Atlanta Press Club. “And it was totally kept from the public.”
While some may question if these revisions go far enough in the effort to open-up open meetings and records, Olens has no plan to revisit this law for further improvements.