Augusta alters records request policy

A barrier blamed for blocking the public's access to information about Augusta's government operations has come down.

City Administrator Fred Russell removed it with a stroke of his pen Thursday, undoing an 8-month-old administrative rule that had routed all records requests -- no matter how routine -- through the Law Department.

The new policy, drafted by Interim General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie, takes effect Wednesday. It gives discretion to department heads to handle requests on their own, cautioning them in strong language that it's their responsibility to comply with the law and that they face legal and disciplinary action if they don't.

At the same time, if a department head has questions about the legality of turning over specific data or filling cumbersome requests, the policy gives them the option of turning the request over to city attorneys. Department heads were trained on the new procedures during a meeting Thursday, Russell said.

"They're going to be encouraged to make some decisions on their own," he said.

In many ways, what's new is old; a similar system was laid out in the city's open records policy from 2008, albeit in less-definitive language. Russell overturned that policy last year at the behest of former General Counsel Chiquita Johnson.

Her tenure as chief legal adviser ended in January with a forced resignation over several performance issues.

Russell said he made the change previously because of the volume of requests, particularly those stemming from ongoing litigation. He said he had concerns that different departments responded inconsistently.

Funneling everything through the Law Department alleviated that. But since then, Russell said, the city has learned how much work that creates for the lawyers.

Concerns about the policy's effect on the flow of public information were noted in columns and editorials by The Augusta Chronicle throughout 2009. Georgia Press Association and Chronicle attorney David Hudson said the system not only created delays, but Johnson's legal department seemed to look for every conceivable way to deny requests.

The new policy is "a breath of fresh air," he said Tuesday.

"The bottom line is that Augusta citizens should be pleased with the new policy," Hudson said.

Web Site's Transparency Lauded

The records policy change comes on the heels of the city's Web site garnering a "Sunny Award" from Sunshine Review, a nonprofit advocating government transparency. Augusta was recognized for scoring in the top 1 percent among 5,000 state and local government Web sites graded by the organization.

The city's Web site received an A-minus, an improvement over the C-minus it received from SunshineReview.org last year.

This year, the site earned accolades for posting budget information, audits, contracts, tax information, meeting minutes, agendas and commissioners' phone numbers, among other things.

It received only one red mark for posting that the city is a member of the taxpayer-funded Association County Commissioners of Georgia lobbying association, but failing to disclose information on lobbying by the city.

-- Johnny Edwards, staff writer

The policy

Read the full text of Augusta's new open-records policy [PDF]

2010-4-27 Open Records Act Administrative Rule- FINAL_1.pdf

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