Attorney General Proposal Would Ban Secret Votes, Private Briefings in Georgia
(APN) ATLANTA — Making good on a campaign promise to strengthen Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, including the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican, has proposed a series of significant changes to both laws.
According to a review of the current version of the proposal, HB 397, which was marked up by the House Judiciary Committee on March 10, 2011, the proposal would make many significant changes, some of which would directly address some of the ongoing issues involving secrecy and lack of transparency with the City Council of Atlanta.
“I have had the pleasure of working with the Attorney General long before either of us was elected to our current positions,” said State Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla). “I look forward to joining him in working with local governments, agencies and the press to increase transparency and open government while safeguarding legitimate government interests.”
Olens expects the legislation to be to taken up during the special summer session on redistricting, for possible consideration by the legislature in 2012.
First, the proposed legislation would ban secret votes.
The City of Atlanta has been a top culprit in taking secret votes. APN’s News Editor, the present writer, is currently engaged in litigation with the City for a secret vote taken by Council Members at the February 2010 Council Retreat at the Georgia Aquarium.
Two courts–Fulton County Superior Judge Christopher Brasher and Georgia Court of Appeals, with Chris McFadden authoring–have ruled that the way the law is currently written, based upon a plain language interpretation, allows for secret votes so long as they are not roll-call votes.
APN contacted Olens’s office in February and forwarded them several materials regarding the City of Atlanta’s secret vote, while the legislation was still being drafted. Stefan Ritter, Deputy Attorney General, has expressed concern over the secret vote situation.
By striking the words, “In the case of a roll-call vote” from the clause “The name of each person voting for or against a proposal shall be recorded,” the language of the Meetings Act concerning vote-recording requirements no longer distinguishes between roll-call votes and non-roll call votes.
Currently for non-roll call votes, the law states that the vote shall be assumed unanimous unless the minutes list who voted against the proposal or abstained. Two courts have ruled that this does not constitute a mandate for the minutes to state who voted against or abstained; merely that it mandates that the public assume the vote is unanimous unless otherwise noted.
This has led to quite a conundrum in the City of Atlanta, where a 7 to 8 vote must be assumed unanimous by the citizens because none of the nay voters are listed.
Second, the proposed legislation “makes clear that a board cannot evade the law by meeting in subsets that equal less than a quorum,” Olens’s Office said in a press statement.
As recently reported by APN, the Atlanta City Council has been engaging in a practice of holding closed-door, private committee briefings prior to the actual committee meetings.
The Council, with Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) taking the lead, has been defending the practice, noting that the meetings do not always have a quorum.
The proposed law adds a new category of meeting covered under the Meetings Act: “the gathering of or communications between more than two but less than a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency of persons appointed by those members if the primary purpose of the gathering or communications is to evade or avoid the quorum requirements for conducting a meeting while discussing or conducting official business.”
“While traveling around the state last year, I heard repeatedly from concerned citizens that our current Open Meetings and Open Records laws are more confusing than constructive,” Olens said in a press release.
“Georgians deserve a clear, coherent law that enforces good government practices and allows them to hold their elected officials accountable. I believe this legislation makes great strides toward that goal,” Olens said.
Third, the bill would increase fines for noncompliance by public officials.
The bill strengthens the current laws by increasing the maximum penalty for Open Meetings and Open Records violations to $1,000, and adds fines of up to $2,500 for each subsequent offense for one year following. Presently, the maximum fine for Open Records violations is $100 and the maximum fine for Open Meetings violations is $500.
Fourth, the bill extends the amount of time allowed to file an open meetings dispute from three months since the violations, to six months, so long as it is three months since discovering the violation.
Fifth, the bill would require that minutes be taken of executive session meetings, in case they are needed in a court proceeding.
Sixth, the bill adds new language require all votes to be taken in public.
In terms of the Open Records Act, the bill significantly re-writes the Act.
“To ensure timely responses to Open Record Act requests, the Open Records portion of the bill reaffirms that requests must be handled in no more than three days and removes many ambiguous provisions that have caused delay in the receipt of public records,” Olens’s Office said.
Georgia’s Sunshine Laws came into their current form in 1988, although there were laws on the books prior to that. While there have been several minor revisions over the past two decades–mostly adding exemptions for a particular type of record–if enacted, this law would be the most significant revision to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws since 1988.
(END / 2011)