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Needless barrier to public access

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POSTED: March 6, 2007 5:09 a.m.

Once again some members of the Georgia General Assembly are trying to create another hoop for Georgians to jump through to get information that by rights belongs to them.
Once again it’s a bad idea and a recipe for bad law.
The culprit this time is House Bill 283, which would allow government agencies subject to open records laws to require that public record requests be submitted in writing. Exempt from such regulations would be routine items like minutes, meeting agendas and the like.
You can quickly see the problem here: Some local governments likely would not enact, or at least not rigidly enforce, such powers. Some would enact them and use them responsibly. And others, of course, would use the law as just another barrier to full and timely accountability. Anyone who doubts this is clearly unfamiliar with the ways governments routinely use, and have always used, any loophole available to delay or deny public access.
The bill’s author and chief sponsor, Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, argues that the measure is a means of protecting officials subject to criminal charges for violation of sunshine laws. “It isn’t a secrecy issue, Hatfield said. “It’s a matter of fairness to all parties involved in the process."
If frequent and frivolous charges against public officials for sunshine law violations were a chronic problem in Georgia, such a measure might make sense. They aren’t, and it doesn’t.
What this bill does is what most such would-be impediments to public access — whether they are intended as such or not — almost always do: It reflects an assumption, perhaps subliminal, that laws governing access to public records should serve the interests and convenience of government rather than of the public.
No responsible public servant will say that, or suggest that he or she believes that; but it is the inevitable effect of buffers between citizens and the institutions that exist to serve them.
Of course there should be common sense expectations of, and limits to, how quickly documents, especially detailed and voluminous ones, must be delivered on demand, whether that demand is verbal or written. Of course government offices should be allowed to charge a reasonable fee to cover their expenses in producing much materials.
But this bill looks like nothing more than a new hurdle for the public, in the interest of solving a problem that no one has credibly argued even exists.

— Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

 

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