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By Robert Baker
Governor Nathan Deal signed HB 397 this week after two years of intensive negotiations and debate regarding Attorney General Sam Olen’s efforts to reform Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. The dramatic changes contained in HB 397 will clarify and enhance public access to government meetings and records, and create new obligations for state and local governments.
The significant changes to the Open Meetings Act provisions are:
– The definition of a “meeting” subject to the act is clarified to require that the members of the governing body of an agency must be engaging in “any official business, policy, or public matter of the agency is formulated, presented, discussed, or voted upon;…” Section 50-14-1(a)(3)(A)
– “All votes at any meeting shall be taken in public after due notice of the meeting and compliance with the posting and agenda requirements…” Section 50-14-1 (b)(1)
– Notices must be posted of a regular meeting of an agency “at least one week in advance” and also contained on the agencies website. Section 50-14-1 (d)(1)
– Minutes of executive sessions must be recorded but will not be publicly available unless required in a court proceeding. Section 50-14-1 (e)(2)(C)
– Votes taken in executive session “to acquire, dispose of, or lease real estate, or to settle litigation, claims, or administrative proceedings” will not be binding until a public vote is taken. Section 50-14-3 (b)(1)
– Misdemeanor penalties for willful violations are increased from $500 to $1,000, and civil penalties may be imposed by the courts for negligent violations. Civil and criminal fines are increased to $2,500 for each additional violation.
The preamble to the new provisions of the Open Records Act declares that “the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government … and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government.” The extensive revision of the Open Records Act now provides:
– An agency may now provide copies of a record instead of providing access to the record. Section 50-18-71 (b)(1)(B)
– Requests may be made by e-mail or facsimile. Section 50-18-71 (b)(2)
– Reasonable charges may be made for “search, retrieval, redaction, and production or copying costs” and the per page copying fee has been reduced to $0.10. Section 50-18-71 (c)(1-2)
– An agency must provide an estimate if costs exceed $25 and may insist on payment prior to beginning any work if costs exceed $500. Section 50-18-71 (d)
– Agencies must produce electronic copies or printouts of electronic records, and the “requester may request that electronic records, data, or data fields be produced in the format in which such data or electronic records are kept by the agency…” Section 50-18-71(f)
– An agency which contracts with a private vendor to collect and maintain public records must make those records available. Section 50-18-71 (h)
– Public employee records are protected except for salary information (Section 50-50-18-72 (a)(21)) as well as trade secret information obtained from a person or business that is required by law to be filed. Section 50-18-72 (a)(34)
For more information, contact Robert Baker at 770.818.4240 or[email protected].