Give “sunshine” laws some teeth

When Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens first took office, he promised to push reforms to the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws so that they would have the teeth necessary to require compliance.

Two years later, Georgia needs more “sunshine” now than ever — meaning it’s time the legislature considers harsher penalties and fines for violations of these laws.

House Bill 397 would do just that.

Proposed last week by Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla), this bill would provide exactly the sort of guidance the law needs.

Because, as a recent ruling by the Georgia State Supreme Court shows, Open Records and Open Meetings laws are not exactly a priority in the minds of most public officials. While the law is the law, some laws obviously are more privileged than others in terms of how they are enforced or taken seriously, it seems.

And these laws are important because they ensure public accountability and overall transparency via a well-equipped press, which can serve as a valuable watchdog for those don’t have the time to sit through seemingly boring school board meetings or legislative sessions, for instance.

But sunshine laws are not just for journalists or other members of the media. Open Records laws are important in a variety of other fields and can serve as an important tool for concerned citizens in general.

But, as it stands, sunshine law violations are rarely prosecuted. In fact, there have been less than a dozen successful prosecutions of Open Meetings law since its inception.

Therefore, a key provision of the bill would allow judges to directly impose sanctions with increased penalties of up to $1000 for first time offenses and up to $2500 for repeat offenders.

The bill would also reduce copy costs from $.25 per page to $.10 a page – which may not seem like a lot at first but which can seriously add up on large requests, as personal experience has shown.

Other important elements of the bill are things it doesn’t change. For example, the bill maintains strong mandated Open Records response times capped at a maximum of 3 days – a vital element of the current law.

Will all these elements make it through to a final bill? I don’t know.

But it certainly bears close following.

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This is the personal page of Chris Shattuck -- an Atlanta-based media professional with a background in business reporting, nonprofits and agency PR.

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