Georgia sunshine: the semantics of public records

bench-docket

Georgia court records. Are they open if they are in plain view? Photo by author.

Georgia’s government regularly gets failing grades for transparency when it comes to making records available to the press, researchers, and the general public. A recent survey of states by the Center for Public Integrity flunked Georgia with a grade of 46% on two questions: 1) Do citizens have a legal right of access to information?; and, 2) Is the right of access to information effective?

Under Georgia law, the governor and legislative branches are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. §50-18-70). The judicial branch, including county superior courts, operates under a different set of rules for making court records — case files, land records, etc. — available to the public.

The state’s lack of transparency has vexed journalists, activists, and researchers for many years. After Georgia revamped its Open Records Act in 2011, Creative Loafing‘s Thomas Wheatley wrote about the legislature’s exemption from the law. Wheatley asked at the end of his article, “Can anyone offer a reason why the General Assembly shouldn’t have to follow the state’s sunshine laws?”

I first encountered the uneven compliance with Georgia’s records law in March 2012 while preparing for a DeKalb History Center lecture on a 1970s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program in Decatur, an Atlanta suburb. I had requested property files — buildings permits, citations, etc. — from several properties formerly in HUD’s inventory from the city’s development service desk.

After the files were delivered to me, the city’s chief building official came to the counter. He asked me the purpose of my request to review the public records and then he asked for the records. I handed the materials to him and explained that it was part of a research project that was to be delivered in a public presentation in two months. He then declined to return the records and he instructed me to submit a formal request to review the documents on my letterhead. According to the Decatur official, my request would then be evaluated by the city’s legal staff.

I left the office and wrote a letter to Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss outlining the apparent violation of Georgia’s Open Records Act. Merriss replied,

I have checked with [employee] and the City Attorney and apologize for the confusion regarding the request you made to view property files at the City’s Planning, Zoning and Inspections (PZI) division.  [Employee] was unaware that the City had to accept verbal requests for access to records covered by the Georgia Open Records Act.

Another encounter with a local government agency, this time the Fulton County Superior Court Clerk, spurred me to look into how unevenly Georgia’s records law is applied. I learned that there are multiple tiers of “public records” and that requests to inspect and duplicate records are subject to the interpretation of agency officials.

After meeting with Fulton County Clerk Tina Robinson to discuss her office’s policies, I interviewed Jim Walls, formerly the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s lead investigative editor and the author of the comments found in the Center for Public Integrity survey, and Georgia State Archives director Christopher Davidson. The results of my inquiry were published last week by the National Council on Public History in a History@Work post titled, Bridging the new digital divide: Open records in the age of digital reproduction.

© 2013 D.S. Rotenstein