Closed mouths on open records

City doesn't return community support on vital public issue

 

If only the mayor was as adept at cutting red tape as he is at cutting ribbons.

It gives us no pleasure to report that our largely ceremonial chief executive seems to have little interest in that side of public service.

When confronted with the fact that the city's 911 call center is withholding public recordings of 911 calls -- unlawfully in our view, and likely in the view of the state's attorney general's office -- Mayor Deke Copenhaver tucked tail and ran, hiding behind possible legal action by The Chronicle .

"The fact that a lawsuit is in the works makes this pending/potential litigation legally limiting my ability to comment," he wrote to us, noting that Chronicle attorney David Hudson and he "have had many conversations with issues that are created when elected officials comment on pending and potential litigation as it creates a great deal of legal liability."

How disappointing and even disingenuous. We weren't looking for quotes; we wanted help!

Yet, first, the city fails to comply with the law, forcing the community to take legal action. Then the mayor claims the legal action that the city itself caused now ties his hands? What a bunch of malarkey, and a severe letdown coming from a mayor who has enjoyed support from a vast swath of this city.

Apparently, the support doesn't run both ways.

The mayor need not be careful about what he says: We're pretty sure the city is in legal hot water already.

An assistant attorney general ominously advised the city of Augusta, "While I am not yet assuming the City has violated the (Open Records) Act, I would ask that you provide a response to the allegations to clarify and to provide further legal support for the City's position."

The reason for that veiled warning is clear: The city's position is weak, at best -- openly flouting established law at worst.

Hudson, who also serves as counsel to the Georgia Press Association, says 911 calls are exempted from investigative materials that can be withheld from release. Precedent also establishes such calls as public record. And as Hollie Manheimer, executive director for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, notes, "Even when the Open Records Act was adjusted a few years ago, these public records (remained) open to the public. The legislature recognizes that access to these records and information is useful and beneficial to the community and enables the public to better monitor its government."

Any court reviewing this case will look at such legislative intent.

The city is largely trying to protect itself from public scrutiny. Release of 911 recordings -- especially from as violent a summer as Augusta just witnessed, with eight killings in seven incidents in a particularly bloody spell in July -- will help the community determine, among other things, how well officials are performing under pressure.

In a free country, we have a right to know that.

"These are records key to the public's ability to review the actions of government," says Chronicle Executive Editor Alan English.

There are rumors that the city's in-house legal department wants even more staff. Given this albatross, do we really want to invest more tax money there?

Besides the apparent violations of the Open Records Act, we would think a city government that has received so much support from its community -- Copenhaver and commissioners Al Mason and Corey Johnson were just re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote -- would return the support.

Apparently, it doesn't run both ways.

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