If House Bill 283 is enacted into law by the Georgia General Assembly, elected officials and staff of state and local government offices should reject the power it could give them to make the public take unnecessary steps to get public records.
The bill, sponsored by state Reps. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, Steve Tumlin, R-Marietta, and Roger B. Lane, R-Darien, would give government agencies subject to the state’s open records laws the option of requiring that requests to see or copy public records be submitted in writing.
The law wouldn’t apply to meeting agendas, meeting summaries, or minutes of a governing body’s most recent meeting.
There are, of course, some problems with the bill.
First, there’s at least one practical problem, in that the bill doesn't specify how broad — or how narrow — a written request to see public records would have to be to prompt release of those records.
By way of example: Local governments may maintain reams of documentation on zoning issues, from the initial rezoning request to a government staff review of that request to the local planning commission’s action on that request. Yet, under House Bill 283, a written request to see all public records on a rezoning request could be met adequately if just the initial rezoning request was supplied to the interested citizen.
Second, and more troubling, is the overarching philosophy behind House Bill 283. By allowing government agencies the option of deciding how the public can gain access to records, the bill embraces the misguided view that public records are actually government records, and the government has the option of deciding how, when and where those records should be released to the public, to whom the records belong.
Here’s how Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation outlined the issue in comments to the Associated Press: “Access to public documents — a cornerstone of our democratic society — should be simple and free of impediments. Requiring individuals to write out their records requests ... creates a bar to public access and is completely antithetical to the public's interest.”
When House Bill 283 comes to the floor of the legislature, lawmakers would be wise to heed Manheimer’s words. Legislators are at the Capitol to serve the people, not the government.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald, Feb. 2, 2007.