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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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.”