ATLANTA -- The special legislative session that begins Aug. 15 to redraw political districts will be the setting for lawmakers’ first hearing on a rewrite of the state’s sunshine law, Attorney General Sam Olens announced today.
Olens unveiled news of the hearing by the House Judiciary Committee while he was participating in a panel discussion hosted by the Atlanta Press Club.
Members of the club offered him suggestions on how to broaden the law to help them get documents from government agencies. One reporter even suggested extending the open-records requirements to the governor. Current law exempts the governor’s office, but recent occupants have chosen to voluntarily comply in most cases.
Olens said he had to be realistic.
“The problem is I need a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, and I need to get the bill passed,” he said. “Everyone should be subject to the Open Records Act ... but you have to make a decision if you want to improve the law or you just want to whine.”
Shortly after taking office in January, Olens proposed a sweeping revision of the law requiring local and state government to make public meetings and documents or face steeper fines. His staff didn’t complete the proposal in time for it to pass during the regular legislative session, and he said it still isn’t ready to be voted on during the special session.
The hearing, scheduled for Aug. 30, will allow members of the Judiciary Committee to hear witnesses for and against Olens’ proposal and to suggest changes. It’s likely that some local officials will object to the higher penalties and stricter provisions about how quickly to produce files for members of the public who request them.
Cynthia Counts, an attorney familiar with media issues, said public pressure to pass tougher provisions should be able to overcome opposition. The recent allegations that the Atlanta Public School System altered and destroyed documents or simply refused to turn them over to reporters asking about cheating on standardized tests have demonstrated how far some officials will go to flaunt the current law.
“There is no more egregious example,” she said. “I urge all of you to contact your legislator.”