Revised Georgia open government bill wins early vote

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ATLANTA — Agencies that illegally withhold records from the public would face higher fines under a rewrite of Georgia’s open government law that won initial approval Monday from a House subcommittee.

But the legislation would also expand the number of reasons that governments can withhold information and potentially make it easier for public officials to defend themselves against accusations they broke the law. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is a major revision of the state’s right-to-know laws, which generally require that government agencies meet in public and allow people to inspect their records.

The approval from a House Judiciary subcommittee marks the first step forward for the bill, the product of long-running negotiations between Attorney General Sam Olens, local governments, attorneys and media outlets. In a rare move, committee members banned cameras from the hearing before taking a vote on the open-government legislation, Lawmakers said people who earlier testified about an unrelated matter were harassed electronically by opponents who video-recorded them.

Olens did not immediately respond to messages on whether he would support the legislation. Some of those involved in the negotiations have objected to recent changes.

Under the proposed law, illegally refusing to release government records would remain a misdemeanor crime, although the maximum fine for a first-time offense would increase from $100 to $1,000. The bill would set a maximum fine of $2,500 for additional offenses.

People seeking documents could also pursue civil, not just criminal, penalties against governments that violate the law. Supporters say that seeking civil penalties is easier than criminal ones.

The bill would make clear that information kept in government-run databases must be released unless otherwise exempt from disclosure, such as credit card and Social Security numbers.

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