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COLUMN: The Agony of Open Records Requests

Over the last 13 months, I’ve had the privilege of filing Open Records Requests in a dozen city and counties in an effort to obtain information on finances and operations that isn’t readily available to the public. only to find they’re all very much the same.

The first question is, “Where are you from?” which is almost immediately followed by, “Why do you want to know?” As the process goes on, one or more of the following approaches may be taken at any given time:

The “I don’t know” approach
“Can you please clarify what you’re looking for?” This approach is used to stall the actually reuqest date. You can’t start the clock on fulfillment if they don’t know what you’re requesting.

The “nothing to hide” approach
“We’ve had an audit and we keep great records. You don’t need to be looking into this.”

 

The intimidation approach
“You better watch your back.” or “You may need to worry a little bit more if you keep this up.”

The full redaction approach -submitted without comment

mcintosh-orr

The sympathy approach
“Why are you doing this to our community? [X] has been working here for so long, and they’ve done a lot for this town.”

The character assassination approach
“Jessica Szilagyi is a hack. Nothing she says is true.”

…and the most common:

The financial burden approach
“In order to fulfill your request, you will need to remit payment in the amount of $2,000.”

It may sound humorous, and it is until you realize this is your government and these are your tax dollars and in order to learn about them, you have to be battle ready for the most intense game of whack-a-mole.

Allow me to provide some real-life examples.

Recently, I filed an Open Records Request in Chattooga County. To say I was given the runaround would be a gross understatement. You can read the whole string of emails from start to finish here, but the county attorney moved the target repeatedly in an effort to skirt what I was asking. When I asked for help identifying the appropriate documents, he stopped returning my emails. It wasn’t until I posted the emails on social media and mentioned contacting the Attorney General’s office that the request was filled. The cost? $8.50. All that drama over a few sheets of paper totaling $8.50.

The Georgia Attorney General’s Office is helpful in these types of instances, however, they are overloaded with complaints – and I can understand why – so their response time can be slow. That places the burden on non-traditional media sources to shed light on these practices, and in the worst cases, resort to social media shaming.

Another example is Ben Hill’s Board of Education. I requested ONE personnel file on a teacher who is no longer with the district. I received a two page certified letter by email and US mail from the BOE attorney who informed me how everything would transpire. When I called her for clarification, it was hard to get a call back. When the BOE attorney finally called back, she yelled at me and hung up on me. Now, she’s refusing to even have a cost estimate or expected fulfillment date until October 7th – 13 days after the request was originally filed. Not only is that not in line with the law, it’s completely unnecessary.

And everyone remembers the Principal’s office in Claxton: the estimates of over 100 hours to pull documents, requests exceeding $1,000, and handwritten documents prepared just before pick-up. Ever since the Attorney General stepped in, obtaining documents has been easier than ever.

But they aren’t the only ones: I’ve see the same thing with the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office, the McIntosh Board of Education, and the City of Cobbtown.

I’ll give credit where credit is due: In the City of Reidsville, the administration worked to fulfill requests the best they could given the records they keep and the City of Stateboro runs like a well-oiled machine, providing everything in a timely manner and at little-to-no cost. The process was easy, but the backlash was ugly: One councilman was so mad that I filed an ORR, he posted my request, complete with my home address, on the Internet.

Even when you can get your hands on the documents, there are repercussions.

For a while, I thought the situation was isolated to rural Georgia, and to some extent it is. Many towns and counties have elementary websites, if they even have one at all, and they barely update the sites with meeting dates and minutes, let alone budgets, audits, and codes of ordinances. But then I tried to file Open Records Requests with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Department of Corrections, I quickly realized the ‘resistance’ trickles all the way up the hierarchy ladder.

A request filed in July with the Department of Corrections seeking the number of inmates that died in the custody of GDOC in a 48 month period required the work of a data analyst while a request to know how many employees were injured by inmates on the job required the oversight of a secretary and would cost $1,575.94 to fulfill – before copies. Additionally, the expected fulfillment time was 2 months. I’ve yet to follow up on that request, due to the costs.

Worse, a request with the Georgia Department of Agriculture finances for the Vidalia Onion Fund, and other things, yielded this measly chart:

vidalia-onion

It couldn’t be less comprehensive if they had tried to make it so. After pushing back and filing an additional request, I received a nasty letter from Commissioner Black himself, a constitutional officer of the State of Georgia. In it, he accused me of previously publishing false information. When I emailed him back reminding him that the “previously published information” was a statement issued from his office and asked if he handled other media outlets in the same fashion, he didn’t respond. That was on April 29, 2016.

It’s worth noting that attempts are made to be gracious and kind during initial requests for documentation, but when you continually get stonewalled, the options are narrowed down considerably: drop the issue or fight back.

I’m not the only one this happens to, either. In Fannin County, a traditional newspaper publisher was jailed over an Open Records Request and State Representative Regina Quick has seen some of the same financial hurdles from the GDOT – to the tune of $100,000.

You may be friends with your local elected officials and the administrators that help govern your community, so you should ask them: Why do you push back so much?

More importantly, what are people to do? The majority of Georgians don’t have the time or money to spend their days battling local governments for documents that should already be available. And I can’t belabor the point enough that citizens in small communities, unless there is a band of them, cannot afford to rock the boat trying to obtain documents from an already dysfunctional government. The results are always the same: water bill hikes, personal threats, exile. Fear of retribution should never be a factor, but unfortunately, it is.

The Georgia legislature needs to set some parameters. I’m all for local control, but not sole control. If publishing the current FY budget, code of ordinances, and the meeting minutes is too much to ask, a copy of all should be accessible at City Halls and Commission offices during regular business hours.

There are costs associated with seeking some documentation, there is no doubt about that, but the system in place to make information available is being used against the public to block the release of data. The system needs reform:

  1. Financial documents related to the current fiscal year should be available without request at all times. The easiest way to facilitate this is through a website.
  2. Barring personal personnel concerns, bank routing numbers, and information relating to minors, redaction methods should not be permitted. This isn’t the CIA.
  3. Anyone working in administration should be trained in Open Records laws so in the event of conflicts of interest for fulfillment, a secondary (and independent) person can step in and facilitate the request.

Citizens should never have to file a request to see how their tax dollars are being spent or the general operating procedures for their government. And more importantly, they should never have to justify why they want to see it.

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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