Officials who violate Sunshine Law will have to pay

Public officials who violate the state’s Open Meetings Act and who withhold public records are going to have pay — and pay dearly — because of action by the Georgia General Assembly.

While lawmakers in many states have failed to enact real penalties for violations of the “Sunshine Law,” the Georgia Press Association (GPA) reported this year that lawmakers approved stiff penalties during the most recent legislative session of the General Assembly.

According to GPA’s Sean Ireland, “Willful violations of the ORA (Open Records Act) now will result in a $1,000 fine for a first violation and a $2,500 fine for a second violation within 12 months. Violations of the OMA (Open Meetings Act) increase from $500 to $1,000 for the first offense and $2,500 for a second offense within 12 months.”

A law without penalty has little teeth and is difficult to enforce. Perhaps Georgia lawmakers are beginning to realize that laws worth having are worth enforcing. The Georgia Press Association has served not only its members but the citizens of the state by advocating for laws with meaning. This victory in Georgia was not a victory for the “media,” it was win for all the citizens of our state.

3 thoughts on “Officials who violate Sunshine Law will have to pay

  1. How exactly do you get anyone to “pay and pay dearly”? I have yet to find out how to make officials who violate open records or open meetings to pay, and have not found where even one official has been made to pay a fine. I think it is in the law, but the law doesn’t tell you how to accomplish this. AND who is to say the judge will side with a citizen over the county government officials? I’ve worked on open meetings and open records for 12 years, and never see any punishment for repeated violations.

    • Hi, thanks for commenting.
      The truth is, we’re not sure about the number of convictions for violating the Open Records or Open Meetings laws, but we do know nobody has yet been required to pay a fine. The code section that mandates the penalty has only been in place since April 2012. Local district attorneys will likely not prosecute, so it’s up to the Georgia Attorney General to prosecute these cases. And, it’s up to the citizens of Georgia to bring possible violations to the Attorney General’s attention.
      I’ve personally worked with Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter to resolve open records issues in the past.
      His office has a mediation program that basically works like this: The citizen/journalist contacts the AG’s office to report a possible violation or transparency concern. The AG’s office will likely ask for the original open records request and any subsequent correspondence with the government body. Then, the AG’s office will contact the government official and try to resolve the issue. If they find there was a willful violation of the law, steps will be taken to prosecute.
      Hope that clarifies it a little for you. Let us know if you have any other questions.
      – Kelsey Cochran

      • I have worked through the AG’s office and Stefan Ritter for years. Mr. Ritter does a great job of contacting the offending party (city or county), however, the AG’s office is NOT going to prosecute. It is up to the citizen to file the complaint and follow through with a court case–and of course pay for it! There were fines in place before April 2012, but they were never enforced. It is time the law was changed so the citizen does not have to do all the work to finally obtain open records, including filing lawsuits.

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