New Ga. sunshine law enacted

Bryan Cohen Apr. 18, 2012, 1:00pm


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens announced a bill signed on Tuesday by Governor Nathan Deal that comprehensively rewrites Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records Acts.

HB 397 won bipartisan approval by the General Assembly this year and the law went into effect on Tuesday. Since January 2011, Olens has worked with Rep. Jay Powell and stakeholders on the first major revision of Georgia's laws related to open meetings and open records in more than a decade.

"I appreciate Gov. Deal demonstrating his support of government transparency by signing HB 397, which will clarify and strengthen Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records Laws," Olens said.

"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."

The stakeholders Olens worked with included the Georgia Municipal Association, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the First Amendment Foundation, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Georgia Press Association and multiple other key groups.

HB 397 makes multiple alterations to a law that had become complex as a result of court decisions that pared back particular transparency provisions, as well as confusing wording and structure.

Some of the new changes include making clear that final votes must be taken in public, including those on real estate transactions; lowering the cost of records to 10 cents a page, down from 25 cents; and enabling the government to act more efficiently by allowing certain meetings by teleconference in situations classified as emergencies.

Other changes include requiring minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge has been filed, streamlining and clarifying how government officials have to respond to a request, providing the strength needed to enforce the law by allowing Olens to bring criminal or civil charges against violators, updating language connected to trade secrets and electronic documents to make sure transparency is not compromised by technological advances, incorporating multiple court rulings to simply the law and increasing fines for violations to a maximum of $1,000 and as much as $2,500 for added violations within a year. Previously, fines were a maximum of $100 for an open records violations and a maximum of $500 for an open meetings violation.

"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," Olens said. "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."

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