Though Georgia’s Sunshine Laws are designed to provide for a more transparent government, often city and county governments will stonewall open records requests for information they would rather not release, says AllOnGeorgia reporter Jessica Szilagyi.
Szilagyi, a graduate of Roswell’s Centennial High, has become a go-to voice for readers seeking in-depth coverage of government and politics in South Georgia working with AllOnGeorgia, GeorgiaPol.com and her blog, The Perspicacious Conservative. She is also a contributor on Fox5 Atlanta.
Szilagyi often “comes up to bat” to seek open records for her news outlets, and often she says, she is met with stonewalling with some agencies charging thousands of dollars for open records or attempts to discredit her as a reporter.
“There are more places that stonewall you than are willing to give you the information. It’s almost always for their beneficial reason, not out of ignorance,” she said.
“They don’t always think that I’m somebody that’s going to stay on it and they think that a price can deter the digging,” she said. “I’ve repeatedly had people charge me exorbitant amounts.”
When requesting documents from Claxton, Szilagyi was charged for 100 hours worth of work to pull salaries and job description for 25 employees. The cost was over $1,000.
When requesting open records from Valdosta State University, which is subject to most open records laws as a public institution, Szilagyi was charged over $7,000. The charge for the retrieval of the records was only $400 but an attorney review of the records came with a $4,000 price tag.
This huge price point came from a simple request by a professor at the university seeking his own personnel file.
“From every size city, county and schools, they are the same,” Szilagyi said.
In addition to monetary stonewalling, Szilagyi also encounters those who try to discredit her as a reporter.
“When a city or county is stonewalling open records requests, the first thing they are going to do is to discredit the cause you are looking into because they want to paint you as a liar. ‘She’s just trying to find problems and stirring the pot’ they seem to feel.”
“The biggest thing I get is ‘oh you’re not a real journalist, you’re just a blogger.’ But it’s my full-time job and I make a living out of it,” she said.
Though her efforts are sometimes discredited, Szilagyi and her work are vital to keeping the public informed. Szilagyi was integral in keeping Reidsville (Tatnall County) residents informed of the city’s purchase of a new city hall amid controversy surrounding the purchase.
The city hall, which had a high mark-up in price compared to surrounding buildings, was purchased from the city attorney, raising plenty questions of legality by citizens.
“I built those stories over the course of many months and just kept pounding away at [city staff]. The community was fully engaged and wondering what was next. From them I started to receive tips and information,” she said.
And though many open records are now available online, Szilagyi said it does not necessarily equal transparency and is still up to journalists to keep the public informed when the public can’t make right or left of most documents.
“I love cities that have information online but when you start getting into other documents like a budget, people don’t know what they are looking at. So while the digital age can be great use for a city saying how transparent it is, most people don’t understand what those documents mean or don’t have time to sift through a budget or whatever it may be. Sometimes I think it’s a shield for getting praise when you really haven’t done anything to help inform anyone. That’d be my cynical view,” she said.
“I thought at first it would be the cities that were more technologically advanced that would be more open but that’s not always the case. And It’s across all sizes and demographics of public institutions. There are a lot of loopholes within the Sunshine Laws,” Szilagyi said. “There are about 28 exemptions dealing with why they would not have to be provided and some of them are not clear.”