Change could speed public's path to Richmond County government files

Getting access to public documents could become less cumbersome under a new policy being drafted by Augusta's city attorney.

 

The government is expected to unveil changes to an administrative rule that requires all records requests to be routed through the Law Department, something not stipulated by Georgia's Sunshine Laws.

Concerns about how it stifled the flow of public information were noted in columns and editorials by The Augusta Chronicle throughout much of 2009. The newspaper's views were expressed again in a meeting last month with City Administrator Fred Russell and members of the legal department.

Interim General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said he hopes to have a draft of the revisions finished by the end of this week, with the aim of helping people who seek public information get it faster.

Russell said the new policy would give department heads discretion to turn over records that are clearly public and don't require heavy research or an attorney to make redactions. They had that freedom under an old policy that allowed officials to decide what documents needed to be reviewed by an attorney, so long as the Law Department was copied on requests and responses.

That changed last year at the behest of former City Attorney Chiquita Johnson, who sought to have every department head route all requests through her.

Russell, who signed off on the policy change on Aug. 27, said the problem was the volume of requests coming in, particularly those stemming from ongoing litigation. There were concerns that, when records were sought from multiple departments, responses weren't consistent.

The administrator said the city has since learned, though, how much work the new policy creates for the Law Department.

"We probably tightened the ratchet a whole lot tighter than it needed to be," Russell said, "and now we're adjusting it back, based on the track record that we've looked at over the past few months."

SEVERAL INCIDENTS highlighted difficulties in getting information.

In one, a Chronicle reporter sought a tally of all the legal work done for the city by outside counsel, but the legal department blacked out the totals -- after taking weeks to address the newspaper's request and threatening to charge it hundreds of dollars for copies.

In another, the newspaper asked for figures from the License and Inspection Department showing the number of business licenses issued in 2006, 2007 and 2008 in both the old and expanded downtown business districts. The request was forwarded to the Information Technology Department, which was willing to provide the numbers until Johnson got involved.

Because some business licenses are issued to post office box addresses and can't be pinpointed on a map, Johnson told a reporter the city wouldn't release anything because the information wouldn't be entirely complete.

The Housing and Community Development Department also mishandled a request by a Goshen resident for a copy of the city's application for $50 million in stimulus funds -- a manager first told Becky Shealy she couldn't have the document, then a day later she was given an incomplete copy. After that, The Augusta Chronicle held a workshop in September to help the public and city and state employees better understand Georgia's Sunshine Laws.

HOLLIE MANHEIMER, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said open records and open meetings laws are the people's mechanism for monitoring government, and attorney review requirements are an impediment to access. Augusta's effort to ease restrictions should be applauded, she said.

"Particularly, with the advent of Sunshine Week, we would do well to remember that an informed public is the cornerstone of our democracy, and the open government acts are the means to an informed public," Manheimer said in an e-mail, referring to the annual open government initiative.

Russell said the city is also working to make more records available online, particularly budget and financial data. The city already has a check register, and meeting minutes, contracts and annual budgets, available on its Web site.

"What we're trying to do is make things more user friendly," he said.

Open government

Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, begins today. Spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten people about their right to know what the government is doing and the role they play in keeping it honest.

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state's public records law. Following the organization's lead, the ASNE launched Sunshine Week in March 2005.

To learn more about and participate in Sunshine Week, go to www.sunshineweek.org.

- From staff reports

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