Government Meetings and Records Are Open


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.”



Georgia senator introduces trans housing bill


Transgender Protections in Georgia

ATLANTA – A bill allowing for fair housing and counteracting discrimination in Georgia, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, was introduced into the Georgia General Assembly by State Senator Lester Jackson on Feb. 2, 2017.


Citizens rallying outside Georgia State Capitol (Photo by Jessica Fisher)

The legislation, called SB 119, had a two percent of passing according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Georgia Legislative Narrator, with that percentage dropping to zero after Crossover Day.

Chanel Haley, with Georgia Equality, said that things are not going well, politically, for transgender people in Georgia.

“There are just no protections,” Haley said.

Twenty percent of transgender people in the U.S. have “been discriminated” against when looking for a home, according to The National Center for Transgender Equality. More than ten percent have been “evicted from their homes because of their gender identity,” the center states.

Haley said that Atlanta is the only city in the state with protections for LGBTQ citizens.

“Other cities and counties have protections for their employees, but only for city employees,” Haley said. “We’re probably the worst in the south, or even the whole country.”

Despite this, Haley said she believes that a “positive” does exist in the fight for transgender rights among the national conservative political climate.

“We haven’t had any issues around legislation forcing trans people to use specific bathrooms here in Georgia,” Haley said.

Transgender Politics and the Federal Government

Haley said she believes that everything is a little unclear right now regarding the federal cabinet secretaries and transgender policies and regulations.

“I can assume the Department of Education won’t support transgender students,” Haley said. “You can assume that Housing and Urban Development will reverse its equal access rule. Funding can expected to be cut at Housing and Urban Development, as well as with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

The Department of Education, or DOE, released a “Dear Colleague” letter under the Obama administration which encouraged public schools and universities to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that were “consistent with their gender identity.”

That letter was, recently, revoked under Secretary Betsy DeVos’ DOE.

Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, released a press release in September 2016 which announced their intention to implement a new “Gender Identity Rule” which changed HUD’s definition of gender identity.

This regulation protecting transgender individuals has not been revoked under the Trump administration or under Secretary Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.

However, according to the New York Times, the federal regulation protecting trans individual’s rights to use the bathroom of their choice was revoked on Feb. 22, 2017 under Trump’s administration.

No Bathroom Bill in Georgia

Hope Jackson, a regional field organizer with the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, for the Southeast said she believes that there are definitely policies that need to be changed in Georgia.

“Transgender and LGBQ communities just don’t have any rights here in Georgia,” Jackson said, adding that housing was an area where transgender people tend to have a “harder time.”

According to the ACLU, Georgia has no laws which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity at the state level. The Transgender Law Center gives the state of Georgia a negative score on their Gender Identity Policy Tally.

“No one wants an anti-LGBT fight in Georgia,” Jackson said. “It’s bad for the economy.”

In fact, Jackson said that anti-LGBT bills like North Carolina’s HB2 cost North Carolina $630 million.

Jackson said that the reason these bills and laws can cost states so much money is because corporations are made up of diverse employees and when states pass these laws they inhibit employees from bringing their best work and their best self to the job.

According to Business Insider, losses for North Carolina in response to HB2 included $91 million in revenue from the NCAA and $100 million when the NBA decided to move its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.

Last year when HB 757 was passed by the Georgia General Assembly and went to the desk of Governor Nathan Deal, the HRC and Georgia Equality, delivered 75,000 petitions to the governor’s office in opposition to HB 757 through a coalition known as Georgia Unites Against Discrimination.

When looking at the state of the federal government, Jackson said that what may happen by the end of the legislative session is still unclear.

“At a federal level, we’re still kind of waiting to see what will happen, if maybe there will be an executive order,” Jackson said. “At the state level, with SB 119, we’d see a shift in the mindset for civil right protections for the transgender community.”

About SB 119

Jackson said that SB 119 will help us see the need for more legislation that protects against discrimination and hate crimes against trans people.

“We’ll see that when they go to medical providers, that they aren’t being discriminated against, or being pushed toward conversion therapy,” Jackson said. “You’ll see more and more states that will be looking at North Carolina and asking, ‘What can we do to prevent this from happening?’ I think you’ll see legislators stepping out in support of civil rights protections.”

SB 119 has six co-sponsors, including Atlanta mayoral candidate Vincent Fort. For people like Jackson and Haley, the legislation could be a move in the right direction for Georgia.

The Georgia General Assembly legislative session, which almost immediately followed the 2016 presidential election, will be followed on the other end of its completion by the 2018 election.

For Georgia, the 2018 election means the election of new constitutional officers for positions including governor, attorney general and secretary of state, among others.

Whatever success SB 119 has, along with the outcome of the election to replace Secretary Tom Price, could prove to be indicators of what the 2018 election holds and what future legislative sessions mean for transgender people in Georgia.

Celebrities to flee US before Trump presidency


KENNESAW, Ga. — Hollywood, California, should be a ghost town after Donald Trump won the Nov. 9 presidential election given the number of celebrities who essentially denounced their U.S. citizenship.

The growing list includes Samuel L. Jackson, who said he’d move to South Africa; Raven Symoné, who said she already had her plane ticket to Canada ready; and Cher, who tweeted nowhere on planet Earth is far enough away from a Trump presidency, writing she’d be relocating to Jupiter.

A surge in panicked Americans expressing considerations to leave the U.S. if an unfavorable candidate is elected has become a hallmark of any election season. The difference is that the claims are bipartisan.

Looking at previous trends

Google Trends reported that searches of the phrase “leave the U.S.” saw dramatic spikes following the 2012 election of Barack Obama and March’s Super Tuesday primaries.

This rhetoric often targets Canada as a potential refuge, especially for those with liberal inclinations. Its single payer healthcare system, stringent gun laws and other comparatively liberal policies have led some Americans to view it as a liberal utopia.

Searches of the phrase “move to Canada” have skyrocketed by almost 3,000 percent immediately following Super Tuesday in March, the largest number of searches for that phrase in Google’s history. Actually, Canada’s immigration site crashed following Trump’s election.

This begs the question of whether the disenchanted electorate is actually following through with its relocation plans. The United States’s lack of record-keeping on emigration makes it difficult to say.

Heather Segal, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto, Ontario, says yes — sort of.

Moving to Canada

“I did see a slight increase in immigration to Canada after Bush was elected — both times,” she said. “Mostly, I get a number of calls of interest on what is required in order to come to Canada.  In those calls, around election time, people have indicated that it is politics that is motivating their choice to move.”

Shoshana Green, also an immigration lawyer in Toronto, said the majority of those calls don’t come from average U.S. citizens.

More often than not, Americans fleeing the U.S.’s political climate are families containing at least one Canadian citizen. These types of migrants are far more common because they have ability to sponsor their non-Canadian family members for legal residency status, which a privilege that makes the immigration process considerably easier.

“Over the years we, will receive inquiries from Americans who are interested in Canada when the political climate appears ripe for a move,” Green said. “What is more common are couples comprised of a Canadian and American where the couple decides that it would be better to raise their family in Canada versus the U.S. A move to Canada is then contemplated where the Canadian spouse would sponsor the U.S. spouse toward acquiring status in Canada.”

This doesn’t mean that Americans — sponsored or not — are flooding into Canada each election season. Data from Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship suggests a much more moderate rate of migration.

Over at least the previous three election cycles, the number of U.S. immigrants gaining permanent residency status in Canada has remained somewhat stable, peaking slightly in 2008. Over the past decade, the number of annual immigrants has hovered between 7,000 and 10,000, which seems minuscule compared to the U.S.’s population of more than 318 million.

Because Canada doesn’t keep data on immigrants’s reasons for relocation, it’s difficult to estimate to what extent elections factored into these relocations, but most of the phone calls Segal and Green received remained just that — phone calls.

Although the U.S. emigration rate to Canada has remained mostly stagnant, the number of Americans choosing to renounce their U.S. citizenship certainly has not. The number of annual expatriation from the U.S. skyrocketed from 439 in 1998 to 4,272 in 2015, according to data from the Department of the Treasury.

Troubles of leaving U.S.

Tax attorneys Andrew Mitchel and Ryan E. Dunn argue it’s unlikely these renunciations are politically motivated. Rather, they say it’s more probable that those who give up citizenship do it for tax reasons.

Many of those who choose to renounce their citizenship are already living abroad. The United States is one of only two countries in the world that taxes its citizens living abroad, with the other being the African country of Eritrea.

Many Americans living abroad are not are not aware of their tax obligations to the United States, which, according to Mitchel and Dunn, can be complex and burdensome. When they become aware of the cost and time required to complete the filing process, they opt to give up citizenship instead.

It’s reasonable to expect that most Americans’s panicked claims about relocating to Canada or elsewhere will not come to fruition this election season — and perhaps with good reason.

Reddit user MarburgDE, who moved from the United States to Germany to the Czech Republic, learned through experience that even an action as drastic as an international move might not be a guaranteed solution to political disillusionment.

“When I first moved away, I thought stupidity was only confined to the English-speaking world,” Marburg said. “Then, I learned more languages, and I learned that stupidity is everywhere.”

Let’s see whether the laundry list of celebrities promising to vacate the United States under a Trump presidency make good on their promises.

Protesters in Atlanta speak up about President-elect Trump

Some spectators join, others disapprove


ATLANTA — Thousands of protesters took the streets of Atlanta Friday night to voice their opposition of President-elect Donald Trump.

Click here for the video.