Started at the The Chronicle as a night police reporter in 2000, after moving to Augusta from Lynchburg, Va. The following year, joined the Special Projects team. In 2003, covered the invasion of Iraq as an embedded reporter with the Augusta-based 319th Transportation Company. Served as the Society of Professional Journalists' Georgia Sunshine Chair from 2007 to 2009. After Sylvia Cooper retired in 2008, spent a little over a year as the newspaper's city government reporter, writing The City Core both as a weekend print column and as an online blog. This year, joined the newly-formed Public Service team.
Posted August 25, 2009 02:36 pm - Updated August 25, 2009 06:58 pm

UPDATED: Open Records law violations continue

(Editor's note: Four and a half hours after I posted this blog, a staff attorney for the city e-mailed me the records I've been seeking. See update below.)

I'm starting to worry about the folks at the Augusta Housing and Community Development Department.

After a week of bad publicity over their treatment of a Goshen resident who was denied a copy of a stimulus application, the department just violated the open records law again, failing to respond to my request for e-mail exchanges by the three-day deadline even after I mentioned it in Saturday's column.

Not that everybody reads it, but still, how much heads-up does a government office need?

On Wednesday at 12:50 p.m., I sent a request to Director Chester Wheeler and Housing and Economic Recovery Act Manager Shawn Edwards asking for all e-mails between Mr. Edwards and Becky Shealy. Mrs. Shealy, of course, was on the brunt end of two open records law violations by the department this month – one when Mr. Edwards told her by e-mail that she couldn’t have a copy of a stimulus application, and another when she was given an incomplete copy the next day. Mrs. Shealy had already shown me her e-mail chain with Mr. Edwards, but to be thorough I wanted to see what the city's version looked like.

Under Georgia law, a response to my request was due no later than Monday. It's Tuesday now, and I’ve received nothing. No records, no letters, no phone calls, no explanation, nothing.

I know they got my e-mail. Fifteen minutes after I sent it, Mr. Edwards wrote back and told me I could pick up a copy of the stimulus application at the department’s front desk. He didn’t say anything about my request for the e-mails. I responded that I’d be happy to get the application, but what I’d asked for was the exchanges between him and Mrs. Shealy.

I haven't heard from him since. Or from Mr. Wheeler.

This is unbelievable. I'm concerned that these two may have stopped communicating with the outside world. Or maybe they're under the impression that I'm just a mirage, the unfortunate result of some bad beef or an underdone potato. In my column Saturday, when the request was just two days old, I pointed out that all they had to do to accommodate me was find the e-mails, press "forward," type in my e-mail address, and hit "send." Still no luck.

I don't need to call Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson to rule on this one. They've bucked the law again, apparently having learned nothing from the Shealy affair. 

And another thing. When I read through the stimulus application last week, there were redacted portions on the letters from Georgia Bank & Trust Company and Capitol City Bank & Trust Company, as well as on documents titled “Individual Fact Sheet” and “DUNS Numbers.” Redacting is sort of like highlighting, only it’s done with a black marker.

I e-mailed Mr. Wheeler on Friday asking him to cite the legal justifications for withholding the information. He hasn’t responded to that either.

The city needs to seriously consider Mr. Hudson’s offer to give a tutorial to employees on the open records law. As it is, the Housing and Community Development Department is making a mockery of it.

TUESDAY EVENING UPDATE: At 6:13 p.m., about four and a half hours after I posted this blog, staff attorney Kenneth Bray e-mailed me a response – a letter along with the Aug. 10 e-mails between Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Shealy. They appear identical to what Mrs. Shealy provided me. While this fulfills my request, it does not change the fact that the department again violated the law by failing to respond within three days.

So a formal request didn't work, a print column didn't work, but a blog did.