Blackbox Special Report: Part II

Open records remain source for informed public



ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Georgia’s Sunshine Laws provide citizens access to public records, documents that often affect their lives.

They can tell you why you pay taxes, why your road wasn’t resurfaced or where your tax dollars are going.

Whenever a city council, a planning commission, a school board or any other government agency generates a document — either on paper or electronically — the state requires the public have access to that information. State law declares “a strong presumption” in favor of public access to documents and that the information be provided “without delay.”

State law or not, some governments are less than forthcoming with information its officials use to make decisions. Many times, elected officials will peruse booklets or reports at meetings on their way to voting on a zoning change, or a major expenditure of tax dollars or a new project.

Those reports, those booklets are, by law, the citizens’ property.

Like many cities in North Fulton County, Alpharetta publishes an online “packet” of background information on the agenda three days before its City Council meets. The packet, sometimes hundreds of pages long, contains information about items officials will be discussing at the meeting. It also gives the public an opportunity to study all the ramifications an agenda topic may have and what other residents have said about it.

Alpharetta receives about 15-20 open records requests a week, according to City Clerk Coty Thigpen. In most cities, open records requests go through the city clerk.

“A lot of them are pretty routine,” Thigpen said. “Most are funneled through Community Development or Public Safety, people wanting incident reports or building permits.”

Thigpen said city staff and elected officials are well versed on Georgia’s Open Records Law.

“Our first thought is always to make documents available,” she said. “That comes from my office out – we try to educate everyone. All department heads and a lot of the staff take a real serious ownership in that process. If we ever err on either side, we always err on the side of transparency.”

The process to obtain a record is virtually the same throughout metro Atlanta. A person must either deliver in writing or through an online form a formal request for the specific information sought. The government has, by law, three days to respond in some form, either with the information or an estimate on how long it will take to collect the documents.

Thigpen said Alpharetta prefers simply emailing the copies to the requesting party. Delays can occur when the records contain personal information, such as a person’s Social Security number or other privileged data.

Exemptions to the law – those documents that may remain off limits – are a little trickier, she said. If there is ever a question about whether a record is open or not, she said, the staffer will either check with her or the city attorney.

State law does provide for some exemptions to the Open Records Law. These exempt documents can include:

Those specifically required by the federal government to be kept confidential;

Medical or veterinary records and similar files, the disclosure of which would be an invasion of personal privacy;

Most records compiled for law enforcement or prosecution that would disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or persons, or disclose the existence of a confidential surveillance or investigation;

Records of law enforcement, prosecution or regulatory agencies in any pending investigation or prosecution, other than initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports;

Motor vehicle accident reports, except upon the submission of a written statement of need by the requesting party, who can include damaged parties, witnesses, attorneys, verified researchers or the news media;

Real estate appraisals, engineering or feasibility estimates, or other records pertaining to the acquisition of real property until such time as the property has been acquired or the proposed transaction has been terminated or abandoned.

Even with the law in place, citizens have an obligation to be vigilant, said Holly Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“While public officials generally do not intend to shut out the public, sometimes they find it easier to do business behind closed doors,” she said. “The open government laws matter a great deal because a better informed and knowledgeable public makes better decisions.”

Manheimer said Georgia’s open government laws are about average as measured against other state laws.  

“Generally, we lack meaningful remedies for violations, and that is something we continue to work on,” she said.

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