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.”
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.”