Forum details public access, records rights

Next time, Becky Shealy said, she'll know her rights.

Among about 150 people at an open records/open meetings workshop put on Monday by The Augusta Chronicle and other media was the woman who brought the problem to light.

Last month, the Goshen resident was researching a $50 million stimulus application involving her neighborhood and was told by a manager in the city's Housing and Community Development Department that she couldn't have a copy. After Commissioner Don Grantham stepped in, she got a copy that didn't include the signature pages she wanted.

That constituted two violations of open records law, according to Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson. It took two weeks and a plea before the Augusta Commission for Mrs. Shealy to get the full document.

"If I knew then what I know now," Mrs. Shealy said, "I would have cited to the (city) employee the Sunshine Law and said, 'Here's what I'm entitled to, and this is why.' "

Richmond County Board of Education attorney Pete Fletcher talked Monday about the Family Education Right to Privacy Act, which focuses on student records and public disclosure, and Mr. Hudson discussed Georgia's open meetings and open records laws.

The Chronicle's media partners in presenting the forum were The Metro Courier, Metro Spirit and Columbia County News-Times newspapers; radio station WGAC, WKZK talk show host Helen Blocker-Adams and television stations WRDW, WAGT and WJBF.

The attorneys provided perspectives on what can and can't be released, on meetings that must be opened and circumstances under which they can be closed.

Mr. Hudson said he often gets complaints that an elected official won't talk to someone.

"You're entitled to see documents and go to meetings, but they don't have to talk to you," Mr. Hudson said.

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said the workshop was "a reinforcement." He said everything presented Monday had been taught to him in more detail through Georgia Municipal Association training.

"I don't know that I learned anything," he said, "but it was good information."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

OPEN RECORDS/OPEN MEETINGS PROBLEMS?

If you believe a government entity isn't complying with the law, the state attorney general's office has a mediator who will hear both sides of the story and try to settle the problem.

For help, call Senior Assistant Attorney General Stephan Ritter at (404) 656-7298.

The Atlanta-based Georgia First Amendment Foundation also offers guidance and can be reached at (404) 525-3646. For a copy of Georgia's Sunshine Laws, visit the Georgia First Amendment Foundation's Web site at www.gfaf.org.