Lawsuit Seeks Civil Penalties for Atlanta for Records Violations
Photograph of Fulton County Superior Court Judge C.I. McBurney.
(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta resident and public access advocate Adrian Coleman has filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta on yesterday, Thursday, December 13, 2019, for violating the Georgia Open Records Act.
The City’s Law Department failed to respond to her open records request within three business days, or to provide the records.
The lawsuit, 2019CV330454, has been assigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert C. I. McBurney.
Coleman is seeking for the Court to assess a civil penalty to the City of Atlanta for its negligence in failing to timely respond to Coleman’s records request.
Coleman became interested in obtaining certain reports that Comcast Cable is required to file with the City of Atlanta when the City Council was recently considering a seven-year Franchise Agreement with the City of Atlanta worth an estimated one billion dollars in revenue to Comcast.
On November 26, 2019, at the City Utilities Committee Meeting, City Attorney Nina Hickson said she had the records.
“As it relates to the questions about the reporting, that reporting has been done by Comcast. I have the actual documents, so the questions that Ms. Coleman asked earlier this morning about that, we do have reporting that has been done on a regular basis,” Hickson told the Committee.
Directly following the Committee Meeting, on Nov. 26, Coleman emailed the City’s Law Department, requesting to inspect copies of the reports.
Coleman sent the email to firstname.lastname@example.org , the email address that the Law Department designated as its preferred way to receive records requests.
Coleman received no reply.
The Georgia Open Records Act requires that the City provide at least an initial response in a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days.
After two weeks of not receiving the documents or even a response, Coleman decided to file a lawsuit.
Coincidentally, twenty minutes after the City received a copy of the lawsuit, Senior City Attorney Amber A. Robinson sent an email to Coleman.
In the email, Robinson apologized for the late reply, adding that the Law Department had conducted a diligent search and determined that it was not in custody of the records.
This was bizarre, of course, when Ms. Hickson, the City Attorney, had said publicly that she was in custody of the records at the time the records request was made.
The City of Atlanta’s “hot potato” approach to open records–in which it seeks to avoid responsibility for access to records by giving them from one department to another–is troubling.
Then, the following morning, after apparently realizing that Coleman had already sued the City, Robinson attempted to retract her words.
Robinson wrote that the City’s Law Department would provide the records expeditiously, even though they were not in custody of the records; and she attached three documents as an initial production of documents.
In apparent defensive posturing, Robinson wrote that because Coleman’s email was not addressed to any specific person, that this might be the reason she did not receive a response.
Coleman addressed her email to the Law Department’s designated mailbox solely for open records requests, so it is unclear why the departmental records custodian–apparently Ms. Robinson–would have been confused about why she received an email to that mailbox.
Of note, Robinson did not seek clarification, if she had, in fact, been confused.
Since learning of the lawsuit, numerous Atlanta activists have shared with Atlanta Progressive News their stories regarding their experiences with the City of Atlanta and its various departments not responding adequately, or at all, to their records requests.
One activist told APN that a City of Atlanta official told her that the City has seven to fourteen days to respond to a records request – which is simply baseless in law.
Atlanta Progressive News has had numerous open records issues with the City of Atlanta over the years.
The City of Atlanta has been late in responding to numerous open records requests over the years that have been sent in by Atlanta Progressive News.
However, after receiving a follow-up email after the third business day, the City typically has produced the records to APN.
Therefore, Ms. Coleman’s lawsuit is just the last straw for a recurring, ongoing issue.
She intends to continue to pursue the case, including asking for the court to assess a thousand dollar civil penalty against the City, as prescribed for the negligent withholding of records under the Georgia Open Records Act.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2019)