Georgia First Amendment Foundation
Well-intentioned, but not thought through. That’s Georgia Senate Bill 215, the Harry Potter invisibility cloak for Georgia’s government employees.
SB 215 is well-intentioned because it is aimed at providing a little sense of security to public officials like judges and prosecutors who may have made some enemies along the way. It might also help other government employees threatened for doing their jobs. It would redact their home addresses and phone numbers from state and local property databases.
Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this invisibility cloak are potentially disastrous for open government in Georgia.
A very similar law enacted in New Jersey created administrative chaos, cutting off access to scores of public databases, as officials tried to figure out how to comply with the new law. The New Jersey State House had to fix the legislation a year later and create a whole new government agency to oversee redactions and keep a master registry of officials who feel they need protection.
Georgia is about to fall into the same trap.
Already, personal information about government officials may be redacted from public records if those records identify a person as a public employee. But the proposed law in Georgia would remove a line in the current Open Records Act that restricts redactions of records that “do not specifically identify public employees or their jobs, titles or offices.”
There is a good reason for this. There are more than half a million public employees in Georgia and there’s no list of who they are. If public employee addresses can no longer be shared, then county, state, and city officials may shut down access to all online databases or redact all addresses for fear of accidentally sharing a government official’s address.
Arrest records, property tax records, and voter rolls could suddenly be off-limits to the public or over-redacted. What happens when a public official is asking for a zoning variance in his or her private capacity? Does that mean that the neighbors can’t be notified?
The second part of the bill allows public employees to specifically petition each county to redact property records so they will be untraceable. Again, well intended: Who wants to have a police officer threatened at home?
This part of the bill could stand without the first part, but lawmakers should focus on how to better balance transparency with privacy.
For example, there’s no criteria for removal. If the county prosecutor is worried about the guy getting out of jail next week, it sounds reasonable. But if a county employee wants to conceal the sweetheart deal he got on his property tax valuations, he would now be able to use his invisibility cloak to do it.
This bill could be vastly improved by adding rules and criteria for the public employees who request their addresses be redacted.
In the last few years, reporters were able to crosscheck records to expose Atlanta city council members and a relative of a former mayor for not paying water bills on their properties – to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Under this portion of the proposed law, it would be simple to invoke secrecy and never get caught.
Effectively, this bill could gut Georgia’s Open Records Act by making sharing of public records difficult and expensive. And it would give others, who don’t deserve protection, an invisibility cloak behind which they can hide and get into mischief without getting caught.
Senate Bill 215 is well-intentioned and has already passed the Senate without much scrutiny. But it still needs some work in the Georgia House to avoid creating the kind of chaos that would make Voldemort proud.
Richard T. Griffiths is a retired journalist and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.