The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet on August 30 to discuss a rewrite of the state Open Meetings and Records Act that has become a priority for Attorney General Sam Olens. House Bill 397 was filed late in this past spring’s session and a vote is possible next year. “My goal is to pass the bill,” Olens said. “I’m not putting myself out here for failure.”
Making public records easier to obtain, opening more meetings to citizen eyes and cracking down harder on those who prevent that from happening has become a goal for the first-term Attorney General. He made that clear during a recent presentation to the Atlanta Press Club.
“While the press continues to spend much energy on ORA – the Open Records Act – which I totally understand and appreciate – I would suggest to you that most abuses occur with regard to the Open Meetings Act,” Olens told about 115 Press Club guests during a panel discussion.
“When you go to a public meeting and they cover 20 topics in 15 minutes please don’t think that the meeting’s agenda was handled at the meeting. So the most meaningful changes in this rewrite relate to the Meetings Act rather than Open Records.”
Olens noted one particularly egregious recent Open Records Act request case. A citizen who requested information from the Cherokee County School District was told it would take several thousand hours to produce the work, only after he submitted a check for more than $324,000.
“My office called the lawyer for the Cherokee County School board and said, you really don’t want our letter do you? The next week the individual got the documents he wanted,” Olens said.
House Bill 397 would address how much governments can charge in advance for records requests, set guidelines for providing them electronically, and it would mandate which records public agencies must keep and for how long.”
The legislation would also introduce the possibility of civil or criminal penalties for Open Meetings or Records Act offenders, and steeply increased fines.
“When you look at other states that are considered (to have) model Sunshine Laws, they all have strong legislative intent that you’re supposed to give the public government information. We don’t have that in our law at all, and that’s in (the legislation),” Olens said. “We are trying as best we can to strengthen the law and get it passed.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Friday that his office will open an investigation into how the Cherokee County School District responded to a citizen’s request for information.
The Georgia Open Records Act should give citizens a reasonable path to request information from their local governments, including school districts. But how open is open when a local school district tries to charge $324,608 for the information? That happened this week when Atlanta attorney Keith Meador sent a request to the Cherokee County School District.
On Monday June 20 Meador sent a request to Cherokee County School Superintendent Frank Petruzielo. Meador asked for documents including emails and other communications that pertain to the proposed Cherokee County Academy charter school. The request dates were not extensive; Meador asked for communications between May 16, 2011 and June 20.
Why does this matter to anyone? Cherokee Charter Academy is among 16 schools whose state Charter Schools Commission authorizations were overturned last month when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission is unconstitutional.
Like other affected charter schools, the Academy has gone back to its local school district to request a temporary one-year authorization. Update: In a Friday evening 4-3 vote, the Cherokee County Board of Education rejected the Academy application.
This was the Academy’s third attempt. Cherokee’s board rejected two earlier applications but that was before the November 2010 voting that elected some members who were considered more supportive of charters. Academy supporters have said the district encouraged teachers to oppose the charter school because it would threaten their jobs. Meador said his request was sent because “in my opinion, these issues don’t affect the current teachers.”
The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days. The Act permits governments to recover costs for employee time and copying. Meador received his response on Thursday June 23.
The district told Meador it would need a $324,608 check to begin work and it would take 463 days to satisfy his information request. That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each to recover information created over the May 16 – June 20 period. In total, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information.
Meador has filed hundreds of similar open record act requests in more than 20 states. “I have never in all my years gotten back that this is going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars and this will take a year and a half to get back to you, “ Meador said. “I’ve already requested that the Attorney General’s office look into this as a non-responsive response.”
On Friday afternoon, after he reviewed the request and the district response, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens told the Foundation, “Our office will open an investigation into this matter. The response causes concern.”
Meador’s request and district response were shown to Andrew Lewis, executive vice president at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “These are the exact type of shenanigans that charter school founders must deal with when attempting to get a school authorized,” Lewis said. “It shows a clear need for having an authorizer other than local boards of education.”
Cherokee County Academy is trying to open as a brick-and-mortar school. This issue was discussed last week, on Monday June 16, when school officials would not permit a CBSAtlanta television reporter to enter a scheduled public board meeting. Some parents and teachers were also kept outside. Here is a link to the station’s coverage of the Monday June 16 meeting.
The state Board of Education will meet next Tuesday morning to consider state special school charter applications from any former commission school that still needs authorization to open in August. That is expected to include Cherokee now that the local school board has turned down its application for a third time.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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