Attorney General proposes changes to the Sunshine Law - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Attorney General proposes changes to the Sunshine Law

Meetings of commissions and their sub-committees must be publicly advertised.  This flyer is at the Dougherty County Government building. Meetings of commissions and their sub-committees must be publicly advertised. This flyer is at the Dougherty County Government building.
The Government Center, seat of power in the city of Albany. The Government Center, seat of power in the city of Albany.
The Dougherty County School Board building became the epicenter of a battle between the school board and three local media outlets. The Dougherty County School Board building became the epicenter of a battle between the school board and three local media outlets.
The names of Dougherty County officials etched in a sign at the entrance to the Central Square Government Complex. The names of Dougherty County officials etched in a sign at the entrance to the Central Square Government Complex.
The Dougherty County flag flies in the breeze in downtown Albany. The Dougherty County flag flies in the breeze in downtown Albany.

By Jay Polk - bio | email

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Government is supposed to ensure that society runs smoothly. To do that, meetings of governmental bodies are supposed to be open to the public.

But there can be disputes about the definition of openness. Like the one between the Dougherty County School Board and local media outlets.

Albany attorney Tommy Coleman said, "the School Board did get sued about it."

While the suit over the hiring of Dr. Joshua Murphree was eventually settled, it showed the need for clearer laws regarding governmental openness.

Right now, here's how it works. When a governmental entity like the city commission or any of its committees meets, it has to be public and there must be some kind of notice, usually in the newspaper. But there are exceptions.

"The most frequently used is for personnel, hiring, firing, discipline and that kind of thing," said Coleman.

Another facet of the law also states that records must be furnished to people who ask for them. But the law allows time for agencies to reply, and can charge those who make the request for the records themselves.

But the real problem arises when governments search for the heads of their agencies. When this is done in private it can cause real conflict, as was the case in Dougherty County.

Coleman said, "it says that any agency head such as a police chief or a city manager or a school superintendent. That you have to disclose as many as three if you do a search and that search is not public."

Violations of the Open Records law bring a fine of $100. For violating the Open Meetings Law the fine is $500.

The new Attorney General thinks that the law isn't being taken seriously enough. He wants to raise the fine to $1000. For Coleman, the real problem is not the size of the fine, it's the lack of enforcement.

While Coleman doesn't think that governments in South Georgia have a problem, he would like to see the law pushed to another level.

Coleman said, "all of us in local government would feel much better if it applied to the General Assembly, the Governor and the Attorney General."

Many states already have those kinds of provisions, but Georgia is not one of them. Despite that, Coleman says that government today is much more open than in the past. And just like in the weather, a little extra sunshine makes it better for everyone.

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