The Valdosta Daily Times
All this week, newspapers across the country are writing editorials about Open Government and the Open Meetings Act, commonly referred to as Sunshine Laws, because they dictate that the business of the government be conducted in the sunshine; in the open.
Newspapers act as watchdogs of local government, and The Times is no different. We’ve held elected officials and government employees accountable for their actions, or in some cases, for their lack of action.
The Times submits dozens of open-records requests each year to taxpayer-funded agencies, asking for information pertaining to a variety of issues. All too often, the material is not as complete as it should be because it’s difficult requesting a document if you don’t know it exists. If the newspaper has this much trouble obtaining information, citizens often don’t stand a chance.
A recent editorial by Transparency Project of Georgia Director Jim Zachary calls it “legislation by loophole.” He states that attorneys often instruct their clients, who are government officials, on ways to deliberately bypass the Sunshine Law, disregarding the public’s right to know.
Executive meetings do not have to be closed. All personnel records, minus specific personal information, have to be public and all disciplinary hearings, personnel actions, etc., must be held in open meetings. If a request is received for information by a school board, a government or authority, and the question is not worded exactly the way the attorney thinks it should be, the request is often denied and the information not supplied. This may be legal, but it is absolutely a violation of the spirit and intent of the Sunshine Laws, which are in place to keep officials honest, not give them loopholes to jump through to hide from uncomfortable questions.
As long as officials play games with public dollars and information, the need for stricter Sunshine Laws will increase.
Georgia gave the laws more teeth in terms of fines and offenses, thanks to the attorney general, but still do not go far enough in protecting the public’s right to know.
The Times would like to hear from the community, not politicians, on examples, questions, or opinions on the local government entities which are required to adhere to the Sunshine Laws and how open they are with information. You can write a rant or rave, a Letter to the Editor, or a guest column and submit it via website, valdostadailytimes.com. You do not have to be a subscriber to do so. Any responses received will be printed in Sunday’s edition.