Keep open records truly open

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Let's say you went to the library to check out a book -- but you weren't allowed to just walk in and pull it off the shelf. Instead, you're met at the door by a stern librarian who tells you that you must submit a formal, written request to see a specific book.

After waiting days or perhaps weeks for approval, the librarian then tells you -- reluctantly -- that you can see the book, but it would take many long hours for another librarian to retrieve it for you, so you'll have to be charged a few hundred dollars to pay for the expended manpower.

And oh, by the way, once you finally get the book, you can read it only at the library, and at certain times the library allows. If one hour a day doesn't work for you, tough luck.

Sounds outrageous, doesn't it?

But that precisely describes the torturous process the city of Augusta forces the public to undergo just to see government records.

This newspaper has exercised its clear right under state law to request access to paperwork generated by the city in the course of it doing the people's business. And in virtually every step of the process, reporters have been met with ridiculous delays, outrageous fees and dumbfounding restrictions.

It seems as if even the tiniest nugget of information that comes from the city has to be washed through the city's cadre of attorneys, who appear to grasp for any means possible to make records difficult to obtain.

Recently The Augusta Chronicle requested particular vendor purchase orders from the city, but was told by a city attorney that it would take 26 man-hours to retrieve 444 documents. It would cost almost $500 to pay the lowest-hourly-paid employee to get the paperwork, which then would have to be copied at a cost of 25 cents per page, the city said. Apparently that's the costly going rate these days for freedom of information.

Even asking to examine records in a city office prompts obstructions. Up until three or four months ago, a citizen off the street couldn't even peek at purchasing documents during normal business hours. Only after-hours access was granted, during which city workers would stay in the office, ostensibly to work late, while the requested papers were perused.

That policy has changed, though. Now, people are granted just one hour a day, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., to look at requested city purchasing files. When the office closes at 5, the people are shooed away.

Such machinations on the city's part have become sadly and maddeningly routine. City officials act as if allowing someone even a look at a few files is the world's most crushing burden -- a Herculean labor that would divert untold numbers of employees from pressing government business.

The situation is so unreasonable that The Chronicle joined a lawsuit against the city to legally fight for access that should've been granted long ago, with little hassle and all due speed.

All of this -- just to glimpse the city's records.

But here's the thing. They're not the city's records.

They're our records. Your records. The public's records.

What exactly is it that seeps into the bureaucratic water that makes government officials think that records are their property? They're not. They are merely the keepers of those records.

And any attempt to shield these documents from public scrutiny is going to be seen -- correctly or not -- as an attempt to hide possible wrongdoing or even incompetence.

The city spends millions buying goods and services. People have the right to know how it is done and done responsibly, fairly and efficiently. However, when the city of Augusta is posed uncomfortable questions these days, its reflexive action is to circle the wagons and erect barriers made out of mounds of paperwork wrapped tightly in red tape.

From what we know of the openness and honesty of Mayor Deke Copenhaver, this can't possibly be the kind of government he wants -- a government that turns a simple request for open records into a trudge through a labyrinth. That's why we're hopeful that he can effect the changes needed to make the open-records process more transparent for everyone.

For now, though, we simply are not always seeing that same openness and honesty we like to associate with our best local officials.

This whole business of fighting to see open records may unfortunately have to play out in a court of law. If, so the city has already lost in the court of public opinion.

Mayor Copenhaver should see to it personally that that doesn't happen.

Comments (24) Add comment
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patriciathomas
42
Points
patriciathomas 03/30/08 - 05:48 am
0
0
If the bureaucrats weren't

If the bureaucrats weren't trying to hide something, the records would be made available according to law. This is not just the APPEARANCE of impropriety.

getalife
4
Points
getalife 03/30/08 - 06:06 am
0
0
Maybe the GBI should have an

Maybe the GBI should have an audit performed on both the Procurement and Purchasing departments of the city/county. Something is wrong or else the records would be open and reasonably easy to access!! Mayor Deke, quit talking up the new baseball stadium and allow access to this information!!

Bizarro
13
Points
Bizarro 03/30/08 - 06:22 am
0
0
I smell something rotten in

I smell something rotten in Denmark, but the source of the odor was found originating from Augusta, GA. What's that number for the ACLU. Is a lawsuit the best remedy for this situation. Let's stage a "sit in" at this office in protest. Afterall they work for the public and by law are to provide the info and "WE" are the public. In the end, I think they are just being a pain in the end.

christian134
1
Points
christian134 03/30/08 - 06:36 am
0
0
Here's hoping for the best

Here's hoping for the best Chronicle....The roadblocks will continue to be errected until this government's last dying breath. Until then take all the staff you can spare and march down to the documents, ask for the records and then photocopy them all, if they are still holding they are public, even for an hour, then they are public. It may mean waltzing around their bureaucratic dance but it may work......

patriciathomas
42
Points
patriciathomas 03/30/08 - 07:57 am
0
0
Retarded Army, the only "open

Retarded Army, the only "open records" you're interested in is the Rather Papers.

karmakills123
8
Points
karmakills123 03/30/08 - 07:59 am
0
0
When a city is mostly run by

When a city is mostly run by unqualified and dishonest friends of friends and cousins of cousins there is a lot to hide......ask sams.

FallingLeaves
27
Points
FallingLeaves 03/30/08 - 09:16 am
0
0
So I'm not the only one

So I'm not the only one beating my head up against the wall on some occasions when I try to get police reports? (Not all the time, depends on who I get to the counter). I'm more curious about dispatch, though. Who is running that show? Other than Wasson, I mean, because, he seems qualified, dedicated and competent.

dani
13
Points
dani 03/30/08 - 09:32 am
0
0
Bizarro..I will be proud to

Bizarro..I will be proud to join a "sit in". Say when and where.

KSL
143315
Points
KSL 03/30/08 - 09:33 am
0
0
I remember interest in

I remember interest in Hillary's billing records. It was kind of hard to get those, Retired Army. They were conveniently "misplaced" for a while and then showed up. It's not just Republicans who lose or destroy records.

gcap
290
Points
gcap 03/30/08 - 09:48 am
0
0
You can call for "proper"

You can call for "proper" behavior and efficient operation of the City of Augusta employees. You won't get it. You can ask for efficiency in retrieval of records or any other government service at the city. You won't get it. You can request that the mayor and council retire all city employees and start over. You won't get it. Bottom line is the City of Augusta's employees (for the most part) don't serve the citizens because they don't do their jobs. And folks ask why so many leave town? They just don't get it.

Little Lamb
48879
Points
Little Lamb 03/30/08 - 10:48 am
0
0
The labyrinth that Steve

The labyrinth that Steve Shepard's office has set up is outrageous and, in my opinion, contrary to the Georgia Open Records Act. I have first hand knowledge of how they obfuscate and over charge. I hope the Chronicle prevails in their lawsuit. It is time for the city government to open up the doors. Let the stench out and let the people in.

gcap
290
Points
gcap 03/30/08 - 12:10 pm
0
0
When they let the stench out,

When they let the stench out, please let the public know. I want to be upwind and far from the 500 block of Greene St. It will be overwhelming.

DeborahElliott2
4
Points
DeborahElliott2 03/30/08 - 12:47 pm
0
0
It is called Freedom of

It is called Freedom of Information Act and are made public. If in fact, the documents are made so public, then the city needs an overhaul on the rights to the public and stop getting in the way of the constitutional amendments they make and rewrite. We definitely need a new City counsel to be voted in (again) who will work for the people instead of waste our time and tax dollars on their own agendas. If the people won't stand up for what is right, who will???

dani
13
Points
dani 03/30/08 - 12:50 pm
0
0
Several years ago when I

Several years ago when I researched some property deeds and everybody was allowed to pull the books, look them over, make the copies we needed, with virtually no hassle. What heppened?

jack
10
Points
jack 03/30/08 - 01:45 pm
0
0
Retarded Army, if you didn't

Retarded Army, if you didn't see all the press coverage of all those things about the Bush admin you mention, then you had your head up your anal orifice as usual.

patriciathomas
42
Points
patriciathomas 03/30/08 - 01:47 pm
0
0
dani, the records that are

dani, the records that are hard to see are the ones that involve bureaucratic involvement of execution. City people deciding who gives or receives money.

jack
10
Points
jack 03/30/08 - 01:51 pm
0
0
You can forget about Deke

You can forget about Deke getting involved in any thing controversial concerning the city. It just ain't gonna' happen. He should have had both Marion Williams and Calvin Holland removed (forceably if necessary) when they interrupted the Commission during sessions, but didn't have th gonads to confront the blacks. Deke-you can't get re-elected, so it's time to step up to the plate on this situation before the city has another $megabuck fine to pay.

patriciathomas
42
Points
patriciathomas 03/30/08 - 02:13 pm
0
0
jack, I don't see Deke as

jack, I don't see Deke as non-confrontational. Just non-aggressive. He seems to get more action with the carrot then the stick right now. While his moves are a little slower, they seem to be effective and less offensive to some delicate sensitivities then the stick method. I'd be surprised if most voting Augustans don't see this.

FallingLeaves
27
Points
FallingLeaves 03/30/08 - 03:19 pm
0
0
What does it mean when a

What does it mean when a house has been up for sale, then the real estate sign comes down, has been down for a few weeks, it has a sign in the window saying it is winterized, no one living in it, and yet people keep visiting it? I haven't seen a real estate agent with them.

FallingLeaves
27
Points
FallingLeaves 03/30/08 - 03:20 pm
0
0
I had an agent from the real

I had an agent from the real estate company that had the sign up look it up, but she said it was no longer listed and she didn't know what happened to it.

dani
13
Points
dani 03/30/08 - 03:37 pm
0
0
baroness..It might be a repo.

baroness..It might be a repo. Check the listings in The AC on Thursdays. Most repossessedd homes are winterized to protect the property from broken water pipes.

voiceofconcern
0
Points
voiceofconcern 03/30/08 - 11:44 pm
0
0
hit the road JACK. stop being

hit the road JACK. stop being critical of our good mayor. he's done a great job, thus far. it's not about g'nads and confronting blacks. he has a personality that is very agreeable to the masses. instead of causing friction, he attempts to dissolve things in his own way. It's Working. So, don't hate Mr. Jack. I'm sure Mr. Copenhaver is doing a far better job at the city's helm than you could ever imagine. And, it ain't a black thing anyway. It's a people thing. Deke is a people-person. Look at the new jobs and industry he's attracting to our city. 'Nuff Said. Again, as i already stated .... hit the road JACK. Deke WILL get re-elected.

tom.katt
0
Points
tom.katt 04/01/08 - 09:03 am
0
0
It is oh so common for the

It is oh so common for the government agencies anywhere in GA to hold back information. Augusta Chronice needs to place a phone call to the Attorney General 's office. They are teh gatekeeper and they assist folks in obtaining records.

Get a group of reporters, including national media (I have a.p. contacts) if you need them and bring a rep from the Attorney General's office... you will get your records I bet.

ETROOP
0
Points
ETROOP 04/05/08 - 05:03 am
0
0
if you think getting city

if you think getting city records is a nightmare try getting school documents that we are allowed to see rcboe has so many complaints for open records violations it has become rediculous. the state attorney general has had to get involved to help parents. augusta is crooked and will remain so till we the people stop them and stop electing so and so and start a proper election not is he your brother or cousin or better yet an in-law.

Little Lamb
48879
Points
Little Lamb 04/05/08 - 11:11 am
0
0
Dani, you are right that the

Dani, you are right that the records are being withheld from the people much more now than in the past. They have placed the city attorney's office in place as a gatekeeper, and he gets to bill the city for the amount of time he can stall the person seeking the records. It took me over a month to get the records that the GORA law says I should have been able to see in three days. I wonder how much Shepard Plunkett made off the city on my records request?

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