ATLANTA — The cost of getting government documents would drop in Georgia, under legislation approved Monday by House lawmakers that would also increase the penalties for illegally withholding public information.
The House voted 154-5 to pass a major rewrite of Georgia's open government law, which requires that governments hold public meetings and release government documents to those who request them. The bill now heads to the state Senate.
"The bill passed by the House today is fair and balanced, strengthens government transparency, clarifies current law and provides the tools necessary to adequately enforce the law," said Attorney General Sam Olens, who pushed for the new legislation, in a statement.
In a compromise, the bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, dropped language that would have kept confidential many communications between attorneys and the governments they represent. The latest version would force governments to disclose the factual findings of investigations conducted by attorneys, so long as those reports do not pertain to pending litigation or other legal claims.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation earlier said that exempting all attorney-client communications from disclosure would allow public officials to keep secret important public matters. For example, the foundation said Atlanta Public Schools frequently invoked the special rule blocking the release of attorney-client communications to avoid disclosing information about a widespread test cheating scandal. The Associated Press is part of the foundation.
"While the current version of HB 397 is considerably improved, we still have to be extremely vigilant that it does not slide back and end up undermining Georgia citizens' right to transparent government," said Hollie Manheimer, the foundation's executive director.
In addition, the bill would only allow governments to charge a maximum of 10 cents per pages for copying public records, down from the current cost of 25 cents.