The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.
“Transparency is the currency of trust.” – Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall
Screven County has a problem. You’re probably thinking I’m referencing the proposed landfill, but I’m not. This problem impacts the ability of citizens of the county to make objective decisions about their community based on factual and verifiable information.
The county government in Screven County has a tremendous transparency problem. One might even call it turmoil. Unaffected by who may be filing the request or what said request may be about, the county appears to be wholly incapable of complying with one of Georgia’s most important laws.
The Open Records Act was enacted by the state legislature in conjunction with the Open Meetings Act -often referred to as ‘sunshine laws’ – several years ago as a way to streamline the process for the public to obtain records from local and state government entities. The law provides for methods of obtaining records, exceptions under the law, and a course of remedy when entities and agencies don’t comply.
The legislature felt strongly about the need for these provisions and went so far as to state a legislative intent in the official language of the law, declaring that “open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions.”
The law has been tweaked a few times in recent years, but mostly to account for changes in technology or societal changes. By and large, the premise of state sunshine laws have remained the same and newly elected officials are trained on the importance and the implementation by both the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. Clerks, managers, and administrators are also trained on the laws and everyone is given a handbook for reference and both of the referenced organizations provide advice and resources to local governments all year long, as does the Attorney General’s Office. The information is even available online.
Given the overwhelming number of resources available to those in government, it seems that ignorance of the law is a willful act and violations of the law are deliberate.
So why is Screven County having such a tough time?
On an individual occurrence, each issue may seem more frustrating than illegal, but when combined, the occurrences highlight a theme contempt for transparency instead of one that embraces transparency. And in Screven, the theme of contempt is very evident. In the last 45 days, the Screven County government has violated various components of the Georgia Open Records Act at least 7 different times.
- On 3 separate occasions, the county failed to meet the state requirements for records request response times.
- On July 1, an open records request (ORR) was filed by email with the county clerk for documents related to a revenue stream. The county clerk did not reply within the 3-day window as required by law so I called to inquire – after the holiday – as to why there was no response. I was told by phone that the clerk had been out of the office and that the clock does not start until she returned, a direct conflict in state law which prohibits absence as justification for a delay in response time [OCGA 50-18-71(b)(1)(B)], but nevertheless, I sent my request to someone else. As of August 7 – 37 days from the initial request – no response was ever sent.
- On July 8, the July 1 ORR on funding was sent to the county manager. As of publishing, he has not even responded to acknowledge receipt, though his office confirmed by phone that he did receive the request. This ORR was only fulfilled after the county finance officer, Lori Boulineau, was kind enough to take one of my several calls and help me obtain the documents I needed.
- On July 10, an ORR was filed with the county manager for a copy of a zoning application filed and the resolution related to the moratorium approved during the July Commission meeting. After no response, the request was sent again on July 19. On July 23, a county employee contacted me to let me know the records would be released to me once I mailed my $3.00 payment to the county P.O. Box, despite that for efficiency and cost, my ORR requested the files be sent electronically by email. [O.C.G.A. 50-18-71(c)(1)]
- On July 29, I tried to get a draft copy of the July meeting minutes or summary, as required by law. Initially, I was told that they would not be available until the next meeting. After I cited the code section that requires a summary be made available within 2 business days of the meeting, the minutes were given to me. [O.C.G.A 50-14-1(e)(2)(A)] Additionally, if a website exists for a government entity, minutes are supposed to be published online. Draft minutes are supposed to be included, simply labeled “DRAFT” and then updated once they’re approved. Screven County has a website with a ‘minutes’ tab, but no records are available.
The Georgia Municipal Association, which provides rules and regulations to local governments encourages governments not to make people go through the formal ORR process for minutes:
“It’s easier and friendlier to not make people fill out an open records request to obtain a copy of the minutes. To potentially make your work easier, consider referring people to your city’s website to obtain a copy.”
- On August 1, the County charged a citizen $1.00 per page for election-related paperwork, but O.C.G.A. 50-18-71(c)(2) prohibits charging more than $0.10 per page.
- On August 7, a citizen attempted to inspect records prepared after an ORR was made the week prior. To avoid the cost of copies, the citizen asked to take photos of the documents but was told that would not be allowed. He left without his documents and was told to contact the county attorney. The denial is in conflict with state law which allows people to make their own copies under O.C.G.A. 50-18-71(b)(1)(B).
On six of the seven occasions in question, the applicable code section of the law was cited to county employees who opted not to take it into consideration. Citizens and media outlets have experienced delays, unnecessary charges, and, in some instances, outright disregard for clearly prescribed and enforceable laws. Only in the Planning & Zoning Office have requests for records been met with adequate response times, appropriate charges, and accurate information.
Either county employees are wholly unaware of open government laws which is a disservice to the citizens, or county employees are deliberately and intentionally disobeying the sunshine laws. Neither justify violations of the Georgia Open Records Act and it’s not just the county employees who would be held accountable if a complaint was filed with the Georgia Attorney General. Commissioners could be required to undergo open government training and, if fines are issued by the AG’s office, it is the Commissioners who have to pay from their own funding sources. The fines range from $1,000 for the first occurance and $2,500 for each additional violation. It’s also a misdemeanor criminal offense with a fine up to $1,000. [See O.C.G.A. 50-18-74(a)]
No matter what the reason, the county needs to get its act together. Citizens and members of the media should not have to wait for a county attorney to be contacted, or have an attorney themselves, on matters on which government officials and employees are supposed to be trained. Further, an attitude adjustment in the direction of a desire to assist people in obtaining more information about their government needs to be a priority for those compensated for serving the public. The county should better utilize their website by providing meeting minutes, upcoming and past meeting agendas, audits, and budget-related documents free of charge.
There is no single pillar of government more important than transparency. It’s always the right time to be transparent, but the need for it is only elevated when you have contentious issues, like the landfill proposal, in a community. When the community is divided and residents are pitted against commissioners, constantly trying to pinpoint where they stand on an issue and why, there is no room for questionable recordkeeping practices for data and information that already belong to the public.
As Chief Justice Weltner stated in the case of Davis v. City of Macon: “Public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open.” After all, as the Georgia Constitution states, public officials are “servants of the people.”