National Newspaper Week begins Sunday

National Newspaper Week begins Oct. 4.

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of National Newspaper Week and this year’s theme is “Power of the Press.”

In so many ways, the press is more powerful than ever.

With so much misinformation on social media, people are turning to newspapers more than ever for reliable information they can count on.

Newspapers should embrace the role of the Fourth Estate more than ever, holding public officials accountable and advocating for government transparency.

Editors and publishers can find a complete, free, media toolkit to help recognize National Newspaper Week with editorial columns, cartoons, logo and advertisement at:

School board produces transparent agenda

From The Valdosta Daily Times: 

The Lowndes County Board of Education has created a meeting agenda that not only seems to comply with the Georgia Open Meetings Act, but that could become a standard for school boards across the state.  The agenda provides details that will be a great public service.

The school system’s attorney Warren Turner worked with the board and office staff to produce a document that is far more transparent than what Lowndes schools have previously published and that may well be one of the most transparent school system agendas in Georgia.

Historically the BOE’s meeting agendas had been lacking in detail and in an Aug. 19 editorial Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia wrote, “The Georgia Office of the Attorney General has made it clear personnel items being considered by local government must be clearly identified on the meeting agenda.

“The Lowndes County Board of Education’s meeting agenda simply identified personnel items to be discussed in executive session as ‘List 1, List 2, List 3 and Transfers.”

Zachary encouraged the board to be more transparent, and called the agendas that had been consistently published by the Lowndes Board of Education “insufficient.”

Zachary said at the time, the public should be able to read an agenda and know what is going to be considered at any particular meeting before making a decision whether to attend.

The board responded positively.

In fact, for the next board work session the agenda identified the specific items under consideration during executive session to include:

1. Personnel Consideration: i. Certified PreK-5th – 2; ii. Certified 6th-12th – 2; iii. Classified; 1. Transportation – 12; 2. Maintenance – 1; 3. Paraprofessionals – 1; 4. Clerical – 2; 5. Nurses – 2; iv. Substitutes: 1. Substitute Teachers – 9: 2. Substitute Nutrition – 1; 3. Substitute Custodial – 4; 4. Substitute Clerical – 1; 5. Substitute Transportation – 4; v. Retirements – 1 (Classified); vi. Resignations – 5, 4 Certified, 1 Classified)

Residents with an interest in what the board would be discussing in its closed-door session and then ostensibly voted on in the public meeting could know in advance and make an informed decision about attending the meeting.  The full agenda is posted on the school system’s website.

Zachary said the same level of transparency should be followed for pending litigation and real-estate transactions to be discussed behind closed doors.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act allows elected bodies to discuss litigation or pending litigation in closed meetings because of the need to deliberate legal strategy in a lawsuit.  If a lawsuit has been filed, it is already public record. If a letter of intent to file a lawsuit has been received by a local government, the letter is a public record. Therefore, it would not be divulging any private information or legal strategy on an agenda that, at the very least, lists the parties in the litigation, e.g. “Executive Session – Legal Matters: Joe Doe v. BOE.”

A similar level of transparency should be applied to real estate transactions. The state allows real estate deals to be talked about behind closed doors because negotiations may be delicate or fragile and discussions about price or contract conditions could compromise competitive bids, for example.  That does not mean, however, the public does not have a right to know that elected officials are using taxpayer money to buy land or that the local government is selling off property. Agendas could list property under consideration or at the very least could include: “Real Estate Matters: Consideration of three one-acre lots for future construction of maintenance building,” for example. That kind of detail would allow the public to know what is being considered without disclosing any proprietary information or details of a fragile deal.

All the business government does, is the people’s business.

Zachary encouraged all county, city and school officials to follow suit and believe this could be a template that would help to create greater government transparency throughout Georgia.

Elected officials in Georgia should take notice of open meetings violation

A case involving closed door meetings, cloaked votes in public meetings and continued violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act should have implications across the state of Georgia.

The Valdosta Board of Education has announced it will stop its longstanding practice of going into executive session, discussing personnel issues, then reconvening in an open public meeting and unanimously approving “the superintendent’s recommendations from executive session,” without providing any information to the public regarding what those recommendations included.

The practice was challenged by the Valdosta Daily Times through news coverage and editorials. Editor Jim Zachary met with the superintendent of schools, Georgia Press Association general counsel David Hudson reviewed the ongoing practice saying it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act and, then the Office of the Attorney General sent a strong message to the school system’s attorney telling the BOE it was out of compliance with the state’s sunshine laws.  The Valdosta Daily Times said this week, the newspaper is pleased with the Valdosta Board of Education’s pledge to comply with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Zachary, director of the Transparency Project, wrote in a Times editorial, “Open government is good government, or at the very least it is better government. The board will find that improved transparency will create greater buy-in from the general public and help to lessen suspicion. Doing things behind closed doors breeds suspicion and distrust, even if what is discussed is completely above board. When the school board’s attorney contacted the Office of the Attorney General and asked what specific steps needed to be taken to comply with the state’s sunshine law, he did the right thing. When the state’s attorney says you are in violation of the Act, you should consider yourself to be in violation. In this case, the newspaper, the Transparency Project of Georgia, the First Amendment Foundation, the general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and the Attorney General had clearly said the Valdosta Board of Education was in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not identifying its business on meeting agendas and not disclosing what action was being taken during public votes. There was no doubt the Valdosta Board of Education was not in compliance. So far as compliance goes, it does not matter all that much that the BOE stopped short of admitting wrongdoing. In fact, admitting a willful violation of the law would have probably not been the best legal advice the attorney could have given board members. When it comes to obeying the law, it is not necessary we agree with a law, merely that we comply with it. Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo has been a welcome addition to the Office of the Attorney General. She is now tasked with enforcement of the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act. Colangelo seems to understand that government has a job to do and elected officials should be respected and given the necessary tools to do their jobs, but must also be held accountable. The most important thing at this point is that she follows through. We encourage the public, especially those who have been critical of the state’s enforcement of open government legislation, to acknowledge changes that have been made in the Office of the Attorney General and to try working with Colangelo. Having government hold government accountable may not be the best case scenario, but it is what we have in Georgia. An independent open government ombudsman would be preferred, has been suggested, but not approved by the General Assembly. Many states require aggrieved party lawsuits in order to remedy meetings and records violations. That puts the onus, and the financial burden, on the public and that is a worst case scenario. When Georgia’s sunshine laws were rewritten and ratified in April 2012, the new law provided, “the Attorney General shall have authority to bring enforcement actions, either civil or criminal, in his or her discretion as may be appropriate to enforce compliance…” Attorney General Sam Olens pledged in 2010 when running for office that he would improve open government laws. Having the legal mechanisms in place to enforce the law is one of those improvements. The office, understandably, prefers to use mediation to resolve violations of the laws, rather than prosecution. There is nothing wrong with that. The point is compliance, not punishment, not winning a fight and not making headlines. We never wanted the violations of the Valdosta Board of Education to continue to the point where the Office of the Attorney General had to get involved. The BOE was facing the very real possibility of litigation from the state. After first sending the Attorney General a long, rambling and defiant letter saying it would continue its practice, the BOE finally reversed itself and said it will follow the recommendations of the Office of the Attorney General, viz. the Georgia Open Meetings Act. That was the right thing to do.”

School boards, county commissions, city councils and other government agencies across the state of Georgia are guilty of similar practices and this case should send a strong message to elected officials and government attorneys everywhere.

For complete coverage and editorials see:

Attorney General’s office says votes following executive session must not be secretive

According to a report in the Valdosta Daily Times, the Valdosta Board of Education is in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law because of its ongoing practice of simply voting to “approve the superintendent’s recommendations from executive session,” following its closed door meetings, without informing the public exactly what is being approved.

The Times has urged the BOE to stop the practice and has said the nebulous motions and votes violate the Open Meetings Act.

Now, the Office of the Attorney General has agreed, and notified the board through its attorney to stop the practice, the report in The Times states.

“This is about the public’s right to know and about complying with state law,” Times Editor Jim Zachary said. “We are not against elected officials — we are for the public and have championed the cause of government transparency because it is the law and it is the right thing to do.”

The article stated that Jennifer Colangelo, an attorney in state Attorney General Sam Olens’ office, wrote, “I am requesting that the Valdosta Board of Education change its practices to comply with the Act, by including in its meeting agendas a list of the particular personnel decisions that will be voted on at each meeting. Additionally to comply with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act and appellate direction, the Board should make clear to the public during public votes exactly which decision, including personnel, is being voted on.”