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AG seeks sunnier open records law, admits clouds remain
By MAGGIE LEE
Hearings will start this month on an overhaul of Georgia’s sunshine law that would open more meetings to the public and pull hidden public records out of private databases. Attorney General Sam Olens predicts House Bill 397 can pass the state Legislature next year, though he admitted the law doesn’t go as far as he would like.
In government “everyone should be subject to the Open Records Act,” he told Thursday’s meeting of the Atlanta Press Club. “But I need a bill that will pass.”
His office’s draft bill would still exempt the state Legislature from open records requirements. If the Legislature didn’t remain exempt, Olens predicted, “I suggest HB 397 will be D.O.A.”
The bill also makes agencies release records that they’ve contracted out to private agencies. AJC investigative reporter John Perry told the meeting that the Atlanta water department tried to charge the newspaper $20,000 for access to its records — because that’s what its data-storage vendor would charge to retrieve the data.
Olens’ bill would not let government agencies use a vendor’s bill to get out of fulfilling an open records request.
But Olens also said there are more violations of the open meetings law than of open records.
His draft would:
• require all votes happen in meetings open to the public,
• require notes to be taken in executive sessions, and
• specifically prevent illegal meetings -> when fewer than a quorum gather to talk policy privately with the intent of evading open meeting laws.
“[We] tried to go as far as we think we can go and still get a bill passed,” said Olens.
First Amendment attorney Cynthia Counts disagreed. She told the same meeting this is a good chance to “push harder.”
She wants electronic records to be the standard when available. They’re cheap compared to copying costs, which can amount to 50 cents per page plus retrieval costs.
Once, Counts said, she was quoted $50 for three pages of public documents.
“If it’s too expensive to get documents, nobody will get them,” she said.
Might as well get them in a useful e-form, added Perry, who specializes in data analysis.
He suggested a requirement that database files be provided in a universal format such as ASCII or CSV, when available. Those are filetypes that any computer can read and can sort, filter and graph into meaningful trends.
And not in PDF format, a file type that often cannot be searched for keywords or converted for statistical analysis, Perry added.
Schedule & docs:
The first HB 397 hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30 at 2 p.m. at the state Capitol, room 132. But double-check the calendar for the meeting time and place.