Open Records and Open Meetings 101

By CIARA HODGES

KENNESAW, Ga. – President Sam Olens of Kennesaw State University was known as an advocate of Georgia’s Sunshine laws when he was attorney general, before coming to KSU.

He talked about leading a two-year effort to get the Georgia Legislature to revise the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws during a Media Law class on Oct. 31. Joining him was KSU’s Chief Legal Affairs Officer Jeff Milsteen,  who Olens’ No. 2 man as  chief deputy attorney general. “The Open Records Act was created to make information more tangible to citizens,” Olens said.

When dealing with open records, clerks are supposed to get back within three business days with the appropriate documents or present a clear and precise reason on why they can’t be produced. Before the laws were revised, people have been having a hard time obtaining records that are meant for the public.

The attorney general’s responsibility is to be a resource to the public, while maintaining their rapport with their clients, the state agencies. Olens said he enjoyed being able to see both sides while being the attorney general.

“Our job was to tell them what the law was, and it was up to them to follow it,” Milsteen said. Milsteen has 32 years of experience in the Georgia Department of Law under his belt.

Part of Milsteen’s job was to handle complaints about violations of the Open Records and Open Meetings laws. He noted that both laws have exceptions. There are certain things that can be reserved from the public when it comes to private personnel matters or certain bids. He also talked about when meetings should be open and when they can be legitimately closed.

Students in attendance also asked questions regarding to parking and the current cheerleader issue. Olens response to the cheerleader issue: “I’ve already answered that question in a public statement.” As far as the parking issue, Olens said is always comes down to money, noting that one parking space costs $15,000. He said he’d rather spend that on faculty

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School braves Hurricane Irma aftermath to hold digital literacy colloquium

By CIARA HODGES

KENNESAW, Ga. – Kennesaw State University’s School of Communication braved the aftermath of Hurricane Irma September 14 to organize a well-attended colloquium on digital literacy at the Social Science building.

The colloquium offered several breakout sessions to students and professors to learn some of the newest advances in digital literacy and their intersection with professional journalism. The concurrent sessions included “Adobe Spark- What can you create?,” “The News Process: A digital tsunami,” “Digital Careers: Atlanta Food Bloggers,” “Digital and the Professions,” and “The Changing Media Management Landscape.” Each of the sessions was offered twice and separated into time slots.

“Digital Careers: Atlanta Food Bloggers” had one of the biggest turnouts during its first session. The panelists included Megan Roth and Kathleen Cone of Hungry Girls Do it Better, Morgan Bryant of Eat Here ATL and Olivia Tuttle from Melissa Libby & Associates. Dr. Erin Ryan, associate professor of communication in the Media and Entertainment Studies program of the school, served as the moderator for this session.

 

atl food bloggers
The panelists from left to right: Olivia Tuttle, Morgan Bryant, Megan Roth and Kathleen Cone. Photo by Ciara Hodges

“The food scene in Atlanta, is forever changing,” Bryant said. “That’s why I wanted to create Eat Here ATL, to have a space that had everything there. From places to hangout and places to eat.”

This is the fifth year the colloquium has been held. Industry experts also taught students about innovation in classrooms to help students be better prepared in the working world.

“I never thought we would have a colloquium that was impacted by Hurricane Irma,” said Dr. Barbara Gainey, director of the School of Communication and Media. “With recent events happening with hurricane season, the school of communication thought digital literacy was a hot topic.”

She also pointed out that the Georgia Board of Regents recently approved the Organizational and Professional Communication program as a new stand-alone major effective fall 2018.

Many professors from the school of communication were there to help students network with the panelists.

“They’re working on promoting digital literacy,” said Skyler Lydick, an undeclared sophomore who said she enjoyed being able to interact with both students and professionals.

Dr. Gainey said the Georgia News Lab will now be housed at Kennesaw State University, and that scores for the new entrance exam to the School of Communication and Media have been raised to 78 percent.

 

Government Meetings and Records Are Open

By JOSEPH PIEPER

KENNESAW, Ga. — It’s up to elected officials to prove they can meet in secret legally, not for the public to prove those meetings are illegal, Cobb County citizens were told at a Government Transparency Workshop at Kennesaw State University.

“Everything is open unless there is an exception,” said Jim Zachery, editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. “So, the presumption in Georgia law is that it’s always open. The strong public policy of the state of Georgia is open government.

“So that there has to be an exception that allows them to go back there behind closed doors, there has to be an exception that allows them to have those executive sessions and they have to be able to cite the legal exception. You don’t have to prove that something should be open, they have to prove that it can be closed.”

Zachery, a member of the board for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and fellow board member Ken Foskett, investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, conducted the workshop Monday night at KSU. It was sponsored by the foundation and KSU’s campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

They spoke about how to use Georgia’s open meetings and open record laws to learn what is happening inside your local and state governments. They explained how to: access public records for information on operations, attend public meetings where elected officials make decisions that affect the public and challenge public officials when they don’t comply with open government laws.

Zachery said not everyone is aware that the burden of proof is on the government to show that meetings should be closed or records denied.  In fact, he added, Georgia is one of the few states in the United States that imposes a real penalty for violating the open government acts.

“In most states the penalty for violating the act is exactly like this [makes shame on you finger gesture],” Zachery said. “In Georgia first violation can cost you $1,000, the second violation in the same twelve-month period can cost you $25,000 as can subsequent violations and they can be concurrent.”

Ken and Jim
Ken Foskett, left, and Jim Zachery, right, are conducting a government transparency workshop at Kennesaw State University. (Photo by Joseph Pieper)

And there are only a few exceptions that the government can make to deny public access to a meeting or minutes.

“There are largely three exceptions. There a few more exceptions codified throughout the law, but we usually sort of broad stroke that by saying that it’s personnel, litigation and real estate,” Zachery said. “It’s important that you know that the law is much more specific than those three things.

“So that not all personnel (issues) can be talked about in executive session, not all things that are called litigation can be talked about in executive session and not all real estate can be talked about in executive session.”

This means the government can only use these three areas as exceptions if it does not pertain to public policy. If it involves public policy then that means it’s the public’s business and it is supposed to be open to them.

“Records are public because they belong to you, because government officials are doing your business,” Foskett said. “So, what they put in documents, what they keep in their cabinet files belongs equally to you as it does to them.”

Zachery said that some of the best advice he could give when dealing with record custodians and elected officials is to be nice and reasonable.

“You don’t need to go in pounding on desk and demanding and saying the word pursuant,” Zachary said. “Saying somebody’s name, being polite—saying please, saying thank you.

“And you know what all record custodians have in common and all elected officials have in common? They’re human beings and you treat them bad and they are going to wrestle. When they could make it available to you like that, they are going to take that three days, just because you were not a nice person.”