Jim Zachary: Open government the law in Georgia

Georgia law says “The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government.”

The state’s Sunshine Law rightly says “open government is essential to a free, open and democratic society.”

Open government advocates could not agree more.

It does not matter, however, if state and local officials agree or disagree with the fundamental principles of open government because it’s the law.

County commissioners, members of city council, members of the board of education and everyone who sits on local government committees, commissions, boards and authorities must realize all the government business they do is the people’s business.

The public has the right to know all of its own business.

The documents held in the halls of government belong to the public, not to public officials.

The public has a vested interest in government transparency. Being able to attend public meetings, hearing all deliberations of the public’s business is crucial to being able to hold government accountable.

Access to public records, including financial records, is just as crucial.

Open government laws do not exist to just protect and assist the media. Sunshine Laws exist to protect the public.

A government of, by and for the people must always be out in front of the people.

While there are narrow exceptions to open meetings and open records laws, those exceptions should never become the rule or the standard.

All exceptions should be interpreted as narrowly as possible.

The state’s courts and the Office of the Attorney General have said unequivocally that when there is a question about whether a record is a public record or if a meeting should be an open public meeting, there should always be a strong presumption for openness.

So, if local officials are ever in doubt regarding whether something can be discussed in executive session, they should opt for open rather than closed.

If they doubt whether or not a requested record should be made available to someone who requests it, they should grant rather than deny the request.

If they are going to err in one direction or the other, it is always best to err on the side of openness.

If elected officials were to discuss something in good faith in an open public meeting that could have been discussed behind closed doors, they would not have violated any state law by doing so.

If a records custodian, in good faith, provides a record that could have been exempted under the public records law and did not disclose personal private information, anything to do with national security or proprietary trade secrets, they will not be held legally accountable for having done so.

Concealing the public’s business is not only a violation of the law, it is a violation of the public trust.

It is a shame that state laws are even needed to tell local government officials they have to do what they should just do naturally — keep the public’s business public.

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI's regional editor for its Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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