Originally created 02/12/99

House approves open-meetings, public-records bills



ATLANTA -- Giving Gov. Roy Barnes a victory on one of his major legislative priorities, the state House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at tightening Georgia's public-records and open-meetings laws.

Only one lawmaker -- Rep. Glenn Richardson, R-Paulding -- voted against a measure requiring the chairman of a governing body that meets in private to sign a sworn affidavit that the subjects covered during that session were exempt from the state's open-meetings law. Exempt subjects include personnel deliberations and discussions of contract negotiations and real-estate purchases.

Rep. Charlie Smith Jr., D-St. Marys, Mr. Barnes' floor leader in the House, called the affidavit provision the "hammer" in the bill that would give local government officials and school board members the message that they must obey the law or face up to five years in prison for lying under oath.

"If they're doing the public's business and spending the public's money, the public ought to be aware of what they're doing," he said.

But Mr. Richardson, an attorney who represents the Paulding County Board of Commissioners and Paulding County Board of Education, likened the bill to a "poleax," a medieval weapon with a hammer on one end and a blade on the other. As such, he said it would expose local officials, many of whom are not savvy to the intricacies of the open-meetings law, to going to jail for making an honest mistake.

"They're going to use it to chop off the head of any county, city, hospital authority, (or) commission if they don't comply with this," he said.

But House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta, said the bill's intent is not punitive.

"The purpose of this bill is not to catch people and put them in jail," he said. "It is to make sure they don't violate the law, to encourage people to hold open meetings."

The House soundly defeated an amendment proposed by Mr. Richardson to do away with the affidavit requirement, 157-12.

The open-meetings bill also would require governing bodies to post agendas prior to meetings, while leaving them room to act on items that come up unexpectedly.

The public-records law prompted far less discussion and passed unanimously. It would prohibit public agencies from evading state records-disclosure requirements by putting their records in the hands of private entities.

The bill also would tighten time limits governing public agencies' responses to document requests and make computer records subject to the law.

Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, drew laughter from the lawmakers when he advised the House freshmen they'd be smart to vote for the bills because the measures have the backing of both Mr. Barnes and the news media.

"Freshman legislators, be on the side of the angels on this one," he said.