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.”
August 8, 2019 at 5:42 pm
That is true of most governing bodies in Screven County
August 8, 2019 at 7:55 pm
Get em Jessica. Your work is awesome
August 9, 2019 at 11:50 am
GOOD ARTICLE! As most of us have learned in the past few years, most everything we were taught about our history and U.S. Government was a lie! Why should our State and local governments be any different? It is time for National, Federal, State and County Governments to come clean and abide by the Laws that “We, The People” must abide by. “NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW” must become a motto that we all – including government and politicians – must live by.
Daniel L. Walski
August 9, 2019 at 3:44 pm
Jessica, Good job ! But you haven’t even scraped the tip of the iceberg in Screven Co. A very long way to go to reach the top or should we say bottom of the pile. It’s hard to believe that a Mayberry RFD and a more multiple felonious “Otis” situation or situations exists in this lawless ( failure to enforce, abide by it’s own State laws , policies , guidelines and yes the governments transparency rules ) county.
I’m afraid that here in Screven Co. you will find that the State laws , policies and procedures don’t matter when certain agencies have something to hide. That’s usually when they go off the grid and make exceptions to the law or unofficially rewrite the law according to each individual situation. ( They do what they want to do not what the law requires )
The web could be so tangled and that the Governor of Ga. nor the Attorney General of Ga. may not want to publicly address these embarrassing issues . ( Especially the ones not addressed here, but your aren’t very far off ) Keep digging and the deeper you dig the larger the pile gets. Good luck & Great story. It’s about time as most things never make it past the local newspaper, no matter the magnitude of the incident if it makes it that far.
” Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we try so very hard to decieve..” ( Modified )
Only when certain powers that be are brought in line or forced to resign will this county resemble a county government that is one to be proud of and transparent. Not to say that there are not many good people in county government. But a few bad apples that have been doing things the wrong way for a very long time with no one to answer to, can detract so much from a good community as well as the laws of our great state.
August 9, 2019 at 8:57 pm
Would imagine that “Screven” is not the only county in GA., or elsewhere for that matter, that has this problem…..i.e. knowing the law and abiding by it.
Curious if what was requested was actually ever received or was this simply a test to be able to gather info to write a nicely written article?
August 9, 2019 at 9:58 pm
I’m not sure what you’re implying but this type of behavior is very common in local governments. I cover a number of counties and have encountered many of the same issues in all of them.
Every time, it has been discovered as part of an information gathering process for another issue. In Screven, that issue is the landfill. I asked for related paperwork so I could write about the proposed landfill and a statewide court funding issue and both times, it wasn’t given until I forced the issues and made multiple calls that the information was obtained.
It was not just a “test,” to see if they would follow the law so I could write an article, though had it been, they would have failed. And had they just followed the law, it would have saved me time and money, so obviously I was rooting for them to comply.
September 12, 2020 at 6:59 pm
You are so right back woods not good politicians. They raised trash fees double in one year. And move the dumpsters in the woods. Most people can not even find them. My county commissioner is the biggest joke. Saying how he working for the people. When our roads are falling apart. They cut the grass 2 times a year. It is ridiculous. He said at a 100 thousand dollars he gets for every mile is the best he can do. He gets a million dollars a year from my home to town on this road. And it is pot hole city. With the lines about faded off it. I sure hope I get to vote this year against Micheal McBride. Because a dog could do a better job than him.