It was Sunshine Week in Augusta. Not just because there was no more ice and snow.
But because you won the fight to attend a public meeting, even if you didn’t go or even know you could.
It is one of the reasons you invest your time and resources in The Augusta Chronicle. It is an investment in open government. It is an investment of being an informed citizen. It is an investment in your civic duty.
We go to the meetings so you can choose to read about it. Going to meetings and examining public records are two key pieces of our watchdog role.
The state of Georgia defends the openness that shines the light of day on government. It has laws concerning open records and open meetings. And they are not just for journalists, but for everyone.
The beginning of Georgia Open Records Act says “… open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions.”
Columbia County News-Times Publisher Steve Crawford used such an Open Records request to examine an audit of Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen’s records.
“I heard a rumor that there was audit,” Crawford said. “So, I e-mailed the county administrator and commission secretary and, in about an hour, had a copy of it.”
Getting records is not always that fast, and some are excluded from public view, but the laws are on the side of the people.
Some records take several requests to get to the heart of the matter.
And sometimes, you have to protest and ask for a second opinion, sometimes even from the state’s attorney general’s office.
Such was the case this week when the 11-member Columbia County Hospital Review Committee planned on having a closed meeting.
The group of residents was appointed by the Columbia County Commission to evaluate the three bids from area hospitals.
The state’s Open Meeting Act states, “any committee created by a governing body” is subject to the act. The act allows for some exceptions – such as when the group is discussing documents that would be exempt from disclosure.
That exception didn’t apply in this case because the hospitals had made the bids public by providing them to The Chronicle and you had read stories on each of them in the weeks before the meeting.
Medical reporter Tom Corwin and Public Service Editor Mike Wynn worked for days with attorneys fighting to open the meeting.
We found out that you won the right to be there when Tom showed up at the closed meeting to find out it had been canceled, and rescheduled as an open meeting.