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

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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

Comments (12) Add comment
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Nat the Cat
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Nat the Cat 03/14/10 - 01:47 am
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It looks like "Litttle

It looks like "Litttle Johnny" whined until he got his way.

baronvonreich
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baronvonreich 03/14/10 - 02:20 am
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We should all applaud Johnny

We should all applaud Johnny for standing up to the ridiculous policy trying to be enacted by Chiquita. He stood for all people in what was clear violation of the Sunshine Law.

Nat the Cat
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Nat the Cat 03/14/10 - 09:48 am
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sbcrawford--I am not sure

sbcrawford--I am not sure calling people names is allowed on this website after espousing their opinions, so I will politely address your valid comment and question. IN MY OPINION, Johnny Edwards is a cry-baby journalist who loves to complain when he doesn't get what he wants, including but not limited to, records from the City regardless of Chaquita Johnson. Edwards demands that the City employees fear him, and give him anything that he wants, whether it falls under the Freedom of Information Act or not. His methods of acquiring valid and subtantiated facts are unacceptable professionally and his journalistic ability to convey the truth is questionable at best.
With respect to your inquiry, I am grateful for where I live so that I may read stories like this, and respond to them without censorship or being called derogatory names. If I wanted to read comments like yours, I WOULD go to China!

reader54
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reader54 03/14/10 - 10:25 am
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The gov't should have the

The gov't should have the public breathing down their corrupt necks. Make them follow the law.

Richmnd Cty Votr
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Richmnd Cty Votr 03/14/10 - 10:57 am
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I love cry-baby journalists!

I love cry-baby journalists! Keep em honest!

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 03/15/10 - 01:14 pm
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Nat the Cat, those are some

Nat the Cat, those are some strong allegations you're firing at me there, all from behind the cover of your anonymous screen name. This isn't the first time you've directed this kind of thing at me, either. You seem to be an advocate of a timid press, for whatever reason.
I'd love to address any concerns you have, but I don't argue with shadows. Tell us your real name and what you do for a living. I'm wondering why you want me to back off the city government so bad.

Nat the Cat
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Nat the Cat 03/14/10 - 02:03 pm
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Johnny, personally I don't

Johnny, personally I don't care what you do, and if you don't like the format of your own website, then change it. And who is "us," that you referred to? My comments were directed at you alone. In my opinion, you are a "hack," and you're STILL crying about it!

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 03/14/10 - 02:17 pm
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The hoops the city used to

The hoops the city used to make people jump through were outrageous if not illegal. The files of government are public records. Any citizen should be able to walk into any department and have the secretary retrieve the files that the person identifies (of course, the citizen needs to be somewhat specific in what he requests). The citizen should be allowed to peruse the files at no charge. Only if the citizen asks the city for copies or if he asks the clerks to spend exorbitant time researching the request should there be charges involved. And the charges must be explained up front, before the copying or the research is done.

Bulldog
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Bulldog 03/14/10 - 02:17 pm
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Someone is missing the boat

Someone is missing the boat here! Ms Johnson and others like her couldn't stand the light of day, so they squeal and point their corrupt power hungry paws at others. Having to force our local govermnent to show us what they're doing tells us just who we're dealing with. Let the sunshine in!

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 03/14/10 - 02:25 pm
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Sorry you feel that way,

Sorry you feel that way, "Nat." Have a nice Sunday.

omnomnom
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omnomnom 03/14/10 - 04:25 pm
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nat sounds like a troll to

nat sounds like a troll to me. keep up the good work johnny!

Steve Crawford
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Steve Crawford 03/15/10 - 11:02 am
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Nat I apologize for the

Nat
I apologize for the previous post, but I still disagree with your characterization of Johnny as a “crybaby journalist.” If it weren’t for journalists constantly pushing for access to government records, it wouldn’t be long until very little information was accessible to anyone. According to Georgia law, all records are considered open to the public, unless the record has a specific exception in the law for it. This also leaves a lot of gray area for interpretation. Communities without a vigorous press generally have tightly guarded access to government records. Certain bureaucrats like to think the records they administer and compile belong to them. That is dead wrong. They belong to all of us, and journalists are our advocates in this fight.

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