Citizens

All citizens have a right to know what their government is doing.

Each citizen has the right to access public records.

The Georgia Sunshine Laws are in place to ensure a citizen can request and receive documents pertaining to their government.

To get documents, citizens can make an Open Records request. The more specific the request, the better.

Per the sunshine laws, governments have three business days to honor a request or explain why the documents are unavailable.

If citizens feel they should have access to a denied request there are steps they can take as a remedy.

First step, citizens can make a second more formal request for documents.

Jim Zachary, editor of the Clayton News Daily and Herald Daily Herald said it is generally wise to make an informal request first. “There is no need to be heavy-handed,” Zachary said. “Most people who work in local government offices want to do the right thing and will have no problem providing requested documents, but remember, honey almost always works better than vinegar.”

However, he said citizens need to understand that on those occasions when government officials deny a request, they should be persistent because requesting public records should never be viewed as something controversial or out of the ordinary.

“They’re asking for something that belongs to them,” Zachary said. “They should feel like they can just go into a place like city hall and ask.”

If an initial request is denied, citizens can use a more formal route by submitting an Open Records Request either using a form provided by the government agency or writing a letter.

When a local government denies a request, they are required — by law — to not only give the reason for the denial but to specifically state the code section in state law they are using as the basis for denial.

If the second request is denied and a citizen feels the laws are being violated, they can contact the Georgia Attorney General’s office to see what the next step is to obtaining the documents.

The Attorney General’s office has an Open Government Mediation Program in place to help citizens.

“We work with governments to make sure citizens are getting what they ask for,” said Lauren Kane, communications director for the Attorney General’s office.

However, Kane said the attorney general is not working on behalf of either the citizen or government.

“We are here to make sure the law is being followed,” Kane said.

The Attorney General’s office will act as a third party, contacting the necessary government offices and informing them of the law.

“Most of the time, governments don’t realize they’re in violation of the law,” Kane said.

She said the Attorney General’s office handled more than 300 complaints last year using the mediation program.

“We feel like it works pretty well,” Kane said.

However, if citizens wish to, they can file a lawsuit at any time in superior court.

There are also times the Attorney General’s office itself will purse a judicial remedy.

“If there’s an egregious offense or a government is refusing to admit wrongdoing, we will take legal action to enforce the law,” Kane said.

Ultimately, “laws should be enforced and people should have access to their government,” Kane said.

Written by Heather Middleton and originally published in the Henry Daily Herald, Nov. 29, 2013. 

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Maybe Transparency Project

of Georgia can be of assistance

Been denied access to public records?

Has an officeholder told you that you will have to “pay for the staff’s time,” to copy the records you are requesting?

Do you suspect your local government is making decisions behind closed doors and not in open public meetings?

Have you requested to be placed on an agenda only to have a local official deny you the opportunity to address your local government?

POST A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE ISSUE

YOU ARE FACING BELOW.

Transparency Project of Georgia will post your information and participants along with project directors will be encouraged to respond with suggestions, recommendations or pertinent information to assist you in your efforts related to open government.

You may also contact Transparency Project of Georgia Director Jim Zachary at zacharyjim@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Citizens

  1. I requested the IP Addresses and searches on the city owned laptops that were given to council members to take home. I was denied and the reason given was that the city didn’t have those records. BUT in the handbook it states that city computer records of sites visited, number of times those sites were visited and how many minutes were spent at each site will be recorded and maintained. I sent a complaint to the Attorney General’s office and their response at first was that the city had responded so there was nothing the Att. Gen’s. office could do. Then they responded again and told me that it might be a violation of the Records Retention Act and I could hire a lawyer. I don’t have that kind of money and I really don’t understand why I should have to go that route. I’m hoping y’all have some productive advise as to were to go from here.

    • Dawn,

      I would pointedly ask the city manager or mayor if the city is following its own policies as outlined in the handbook, or if that was just an empty threat to elected officials regarding what could happen if they used the equipment for unauthorized purposes. The AG’s office is correct in saying that the law does not require the city to create a document does not exist, but that begs the question does the record exist and they are denying that it does in order to not give it up? Does the city have an IT Director? If so, request a copy of all emails exchanged between the IT Director and members of the council. Do you happen to work for or have a working relationship with a local newspaper or media company? An article outlining the policy in the handbook and then the response of city officials denying the records exist would let others in the community know about the possibility of questionable practices and public pressure might cause city leaders to take a different posture.

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