In light of sweeping changes to Georgia’s Open Records Act, county officials have had to quickly adjust to new rules that have expanded transparency within Rockdale’s governmental bodies. Yet the changes could pose some risks and challenges to county employees who have to comply with the state’s revised law.
As soon as Gov. Nathan Deal signed HB 397 making it effective April 21, County Clerk Jennifer Rutledge rushed to update the county’s open records request form to reflect the reduced price of 10 cents per copy as well as include the option to request email records.
Her office also took steps to educate county employees about what to expect from the new open records bill, particularly with regards to what records are available to the public and what protocol is expected at board and committee meetings.
“It really caught me off guard,” Rutledge said in regards to the timing of the bill signing. “I sent out a memo with a brief explanation of the changes. Individually, we had talks with department heads and their deputy directors about the changes.”
Despite her efforts, Rutledge still believes some of the key changes to the records act could stump county officials as they respond to the new law.
Prior to the changes, Rockdale’s commission members could not speak with each other outside of designated meetings, since there are only three commissioners and any two commissioners would make a quorum.
Now, board and committee members of any agency can interact at civic and ceremonial functions, as long as official business is not discussed.
Also, inspection of property, mediation, statewide or regional training meetings, meetings with the legislative and executive branch in state or federal offices and travel to a meeting where no business is conducted are not subject to open meeting requirements.
Rutledge worries that commissioners specifically, must be careful when communicating via email so as not to make it seem as if they are discussing public business. Emails are not designated meetings, but are subject to open records requests.
Yet, BOC Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon is hopeful that the new law will provide a better vehicle for county commissioners to get work done.
"Our state's Attorney General believes these changes are useful and beneficial to both our elected officials as well as the general public, and therefore we're looking forward to implementing these changes with the hope that it will make it easier for our Board members to communicate and openly do the work of the people,” Pridgeon said in an email statement.
Review of Changes
Other laws regarding open meetings also experienced a major overhaul in the legislation.
Non-profits that receive a third of their funds from taxpayers are now mandated to hold open meetings.
Committees are subject to the Open Records Act
Executive sessions can now be conducted to discuss interviews for executive heads of agencies as well as interviews for those positions. Records exempted from the public records law can also go into executive session if there is no reasonable way to discuss the issue without disclosing that exempt information.
However, the executive session for personnel matters cannot be used to discuss hiring or employment policies or practices.
Yet, if a non-exempt topic is discussed, the chairman must rule it out of order or adjourn the session.
Minutes must also be recorded for executive sessions; however these minutes remain confidential unless they are challenged whereby they must be subject to an in camera review by a court.
All votes must be public, including final votes for real estate acquisitions and settlement negations discussed in executive session.
Additionally, meetings can be held via teleconference in case of an emergency, but it must be open.
Recorded meeting minutes must include the identity of persons making and seconding the motion or other proposal.
Lastly, open meetings legislation requires agencies or committees to post their agendas within one week of the scheduled date of the meeting. For called and emergency meetings, 24 hour notice must be given to the public via local media.
In regards to public records, HB 397 added data, data fields and emails as subject to open records.
Offices are subject to open records laws, as well as non-profits receiving a third of funds from taxpayers. County, municipal and school board associations that receive a third of funding from political subdivisions also must make their records open.
Cell phone numbers and email addresses are exempt from open records, and employee protection extends to retirees.
Agencies are mandated to provide records within three days of receiving the request. If existing records can’t be provided within that time frame, county officials have to provide a description of the records and a timeline for when the records would be available for inspection or copying.
Counties are now tasked to offer electronic records, as well as provide printouts of those electronic records or data from database fields.
More importantly, mobile or portable devices can be used to make photographic copies or electronic reproductions of the records.
New to the bill is a law that allows the county commissioners to designate someone a “records custodian,” which could be the chairman, the county manager, the clerk, or other person. With a written ORA request, the three-day time period starts after the designated “records custodian” receives the request.
Rutledge is the acting records custodian for Rockdale County.
Costs for standard-sized copies have been reduced from $.25 to $.10. For odd-sized printed documents, actual costs can be recovered.
Redaction costs by a full-time employee can also be recovered. If the cost to print records exceeds $25, the county is now permitted to notify the requestor and stop retrieval until payment is made.
Additionally, any records request that is estimated to cost over $500 can require prepayment by the county.
The county is also permitted to charge for copies that haven’t been picked up and can require prepayment for new requests if previous fees have not been paid.
On top of the new rules regarding open meetings and open records, HB 397 increases penalty costs for first time violations from $500 to $1000, and multiple violations within the same year to $2500.
For the first time, the bill allows civil penalties to be imposed. Penalties can be sought only on written request violations. In criminal cases, an “acting in good faith” defense can be used.