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BLACK BOX SPECIAL REPORT: Journalism under attack Georgia, Part VIII

Texting tugs at spirit of Ga. Open Meetings Act



While Georgia’s Open Meetings Act ensures citizens a front-row seat to decisions that affect their lives, some practices have cast doubt on government’s commitment to transparency.

Technology provides ways to cloud the state’s Sunshine Laws, and one of the more prevalent methods of testing open meetings is the practice of texting.

That practice drew headlines last year. It was learned that Milton City Council members in April and June were texting with residents during lengthy debates over a zoning issue at council meetings.

Records show that supporters and opponents were regularly barraging Mayor Joe Lockwood and other council members with texts during the debate, coaching city leaders on which side to support. Some received replies – all out of view of other residents who either attended the meeting or were watching it streamed on their computers.

“Text messages, like any other documents generated during the course of conducting governmental business, are subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“To the extent public officials would text during the course of a public meeting instead of speaking to one another, it could be construed as an effort to circumvent the Open Meetings Act,” she said.

The purpose of both the Open Meetings and Open Records acts are to maximize public access to governmental proceedings — not allow public officials to hide behind them as a shield, Manheimer said.

Indeed, following the revelation of the Milton City Council texts, city leaders were provided an opportunity to outlaw the practice.

At a Sept. 7, 2016 meeting the City Council considered a policy action to prohibit the use of cell phones during public meetings. That measure was defeated 4-3, with the majority saying that council members would police themselves.

Councilman Bill Lusk, who voted in the minority in favor of the ban, said carrying on private conversations during a public debate violates the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Within weeks, then-Attorney General Sam Olens issued a statement through his office declaring the practice an attempt to subvert openness. A spokesman for the attorney general said Olens had proposed language in the 2012 revision of the Open Meetings Act to address the issue, but legislators were opposed.

The Legislature itself is exempt from the Open Meetings Act.

The public should demand better behavior from their elected officials, the attorney general’s office said back in September.

With the departure of Olens late last year, the state’s new Attorney General Chris Carr has taken up the mantel. Carr announced last month he will conduct an Open Government Tour throughout the state.

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

On the issue of texting, Carr’s office said the intent of the General Assembly in passing the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in an open and accessible manner.

“Not only does such a requirement permit the people to know what actions their public servants are undertaking, but it also fosters public confidence in their leaders and the decisions that they make,” he said in a statement. “The failure to serve those underlying purposes is not in keeping with the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.”

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