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Blackbox Special Report

Sunshine laws shine light on government

Public has a right to be a witness to decision-making



Open meetings laws are designed to provide citizens access to decisions that affect their lives.

Whether it’s a new park, road improvements or how much you pay in property taxes, the law gives citizens eyes and ears to the decision-making process.

Georgia’s open meetings laws extend beyond city councils and school boards. They apply to nearly all local governing agencies that advise elected boards or receive tax dollars from the public.

“Transparency and access to government are critical to our office and, ultimately, to our state and nation,” said Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. “For our representative republic to best function, we must ensure that those who elect public officials will have access to and information about what those public officials are doing.”

Carr has taken up the mantel of his predecessor, Sam Olens. Olens prosecuted several high-profile open meetings cases, including a 2013 incident in Forsyth County.

There a citizen journalist and her camera were removed forcibly from a Cumming City Council meeting because the mayor did not want her videotaping the meeting.

Carr announced last week that he plans to conduct an Open Government Tour throughout the state this year.

He is inviting local officials to join him for a refresher course on their responsibilities to the public under the Georgia Open and Public Meetings Act.

“Many of the issues that we hear about occur, not because of malicious intent, but because of a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about what the law in Georgia is,” Carr said.

Under Georgia law, discussions and actions by boards must be conducted in the open with access provided to the public. These laws apply to:

• City councils
• County commissions
• Regional development authorities
• Library boards
• School boards
• Commissions or authorities, such as hospital authorities, established by state or local governments
• Planning commissions
• Zoning boards
• Most committees of the University System of Georgia

The law does not specifically apply to:

  • The Georgia General Assembly or its committees, although legislative sessions must be open to the public
  • Judicial proceedings including judicial branch agency and committee meetings, however federal law requires most court proceedings be open to the public

In addition, Georgia law allows for three instances in which governing boards can discuss matters in private, but those exceptions are few:

  • Matters pertaining to personnel
  • Matters of potential litigation in court
  • Real estate purchase or sale

“Georgia’s open meetings act is the tool by which citizens can watch their government in action,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director, Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“For example, when a parent goes to a school board meeting, it is the open meetings act which is the mechanism for access.”

Manheimer said the Legislature adjusted the Open Meetings Act in 2012 to expand citizen access. It remains to be seen whether more adjustments are needed.

“The media happens to be a big user of the Open Meetings Act, given that citizens cannot attend all meetings, the media often attends as the citizen’s representative in order to report.”

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