ATLANTA (AP) — Attorney General Sam Olens on Tuesday pressed state lawmakers to strengthen Georgia's open records laws, arguing that transparency increases public confidence in government.
Open government advocates, who appeared along with Olens at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol, said any changes to the law should ensure that access to records is affordable and that there is strict enforcement for violations of the law.
The proposed bill being pushed by the Republican attorney general would boost fees for open records violations and clarify the state's open meetings law to ensure that more business is subject to public oversight. It also would require officials who close meetings to keep notes that a judge can review in case of a legal challenge.
The bill does not attempt to make Georgia's 236 state lawmakers subject to the open records law. The state Legislature currently enjoys an exemption and is not required to turn over correspondence or financial records, like the executive branch and state agencies must do.
Olens said the vast majority of the bill clarifies existing law, which can be confusing for the public seeking records and government officials who must provide it.
"We want to simplify the law, We want to avoid ambiguity," Olens said.
David Hudson, an Augusta lawyer who represents the Georgia Press Association, urged legislators to weigh carefully any exceptions to disclosure under the law.
"Only when there is some other public good that clearly outweighs the benefit of openness, only then should there be an exception," Hudson said, noting one such example is a .
Cynthia Counts, who spoke on behalf of the Atlanta Press Club, said the state should consider creating an open records ombudsman with the power to ensure compliance with open records.
Open records violations have been in the news recently thanks to the Atlanta Public Schools scandal, in which school officials are alleged to have withheld and destroyed records sought by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Local government officials said most do their best to do what the law requires.
Rusi Patel, associate counsel at the Georgia Municipal Association, said that typically the public only hears about open records problems.
"The vast numbers of cities do try to comply with the open records and open meetings laws," Patel said.
Representing the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Clint urged legislators to give local officials clarity so they could comply with the law.
Hollie Manheimer, head of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said that compared to a number of other states, Georgia's open records law are quite good. She worried any attempt to revisit the law risks making it worse.
"The laws really are not broken," Manheimer said. "Why are we tinkering with what's not broken?"
Tuesday's hearing came with legislators back in town for a special session to tackle the once-a-decade redrawing political maps. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard said any action on the bill would come when lawmakers return for their regular session in January and even then, only after additional public input.
Olens said the number of open records complaints received by his office has skyrocketed, from an average of about 250 a year in recent years. He said his office is on pace this year to receive more than 400 complaints.
He credited technology with allowing citizens to be more engaged with government and also to file complaints.
Georgia General Assembly: www.legis.ga.gov
Attorney General Sam Olens: http://law.ga.gov/