Gov. Deal signs HB 397, Sunshine Law reforms

17
Apr

Gov. Deal signs HB 397, Sunshine Law reforms

From the Press Release by Attorney General Sam Olens:

Today, Governor Nathan Deal signed HB 397, the comprehensive re-write of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. The bill won sweeping, bipartisan approval by the General Assembly this year. The new law goes in effect today

“I appreciate Governor Deal demonstrating his support of government transparency by signing HB 397, which will clarify and strengthen Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws,”said Attorney General Sam Olens. “I am also deeply grateful to the bill sponsor, Representative Jay Powell, and all of the stakeholders who worked tirelessly to craft a law that is fair and balanced.”

After taking office in January 2011, Attorney General Olens, a long-time champion of government transparency, began working with Representative Jay Powell and stakeholders, including the Georgia Press Association, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the First Amendment Foundation, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association and many other key groups, on the first significant revision of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws in over a decade.

HB 397 makes a number of significant improvements to a law that had become convoluted due to adverse court decisions that pared back certain transparency provisions and confusing structure and wording. Notable changes include:

  • Makes clear that final votes must be taken in public, including on real estate transactions;
  • Clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request;
  • Lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page;
  • Enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations;
  • Requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed;
  • Provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing the Attorney General to bring civil or criminal actions against violators;
  • Increases fines for violations to a maximum of $1000, and up to $2500 for additional violations within a year. Prior fines were a maximum of $100 for an Open Records violation and a maximum of  $500 for an Open Meetings violation;
  • Updates language regarding trade secrets and electronic documents to ensure transparency is not compromised by technological advances; and
  • Incorporates various court rulings to simplify the law.

“HB 397 advances good government policy by ensuring citizens’ access to government, while recognizing the need for government to operate efficiently and protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information,” said Olens. “The law signed today will enable Georgians to clearly understand their rights and assist governments in more effectively responding to citizens. Moreover, it provides my office the tools needed to properly enforce the law.”

From a Press Release by Governor Deal:

Gov. Deal today signed a bill that will update the state’s Open Records Act, legislation designed to incorporate court rulings, promote Georgia’s economic competitiveness, provide clarity on the responsibilities of state and local governments and increase transparency for residents of the state.

“This bill will help bolster the state’s ability to bring jobs to Georgia while simultaneously aiding the fundamental rights of the people to inspect the records of their government,” Deal said. “Attorney General Sam Olens, Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) and Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) worked diligently over many months to enact needed changes, and we have a superior law now as a result.”

Many key stakeholders worked closely on HB 397, including the Georgia Press Association, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the First Amendment Foundation, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association and many others.

“This legislation toughens enforcement of our Open Records law by substantially increasing penalties for noncompliance, allows for civil as well as criminal procedures and requires that all votes take place in a public forum,” Deal said. “We have crafted a document that makes it easier for Georgians to keep track of their government’s activities and to know their rights, and it clarifies the responsibilities of public officials.”

Reforming the Open Records Act will help ensure economic development efforts made by state and business officials. These provisions regarding open records include exemptions for trade secrets along with records that would disrupt the receipt of federal funds. An important element to this bill includes the exemption of ongoing economic development project records maintained by the Department of Economic Development until a binding commitment is obtained.

“I worked closely with publishers from the Georgia Press Association, editors and others on the economic development portion of the bill. Together, we crafted compromise language that changes Open Records rules as it relates to economic development projects,” Deal said. “Subjecting our negotiations to the Open Records law put us at a competitive disadvantage. This change will help us bring jobs to Georgia, and we struck the right balance in this compromise.”

HB 397 will keep the state’s sensitive information regarding economic activities confidential while ensuring that citizens’ personal information is protected, respecting a right to privacy. No official business, formulation of new public policy or public matter will take place during these meetings, protecting citizen input and media coverage of the matters of the state.

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