Valdosta Daily Times

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April 17, 2012

Gov. Deal Signs HB 397, revamping Georgia’s Sunshine Laws

- — Today, Governor Nathan Deal signed HB 397, the comprehensive re-write of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. The bill won sweeping, bipartisan approval by the General Assembly this year. The new law goes in effect today.

 

“I appreciate Governor Deal demonstrating his support of government transparency by signing HB 397, which will clarify and strengthen Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws,” said Attorney General Sam Olens. “I am also deeply grateful to the bill sponsor, Representative Jay Powell, and all of the stakeholders who worked tirelessly to craft a law that is fair and balanced.”

 

After taking office in January 2011, Attorney General Olens, a long-time champion of government transparency, began working with Representative Jay Powell and stakeholders, including the Georgia Press Association, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the First Amendment Foundation, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association and many other key groups, on the first significant revision of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws in over a decade.

 

HB 397 makes a number of significant improvements to a law that had become convoluted due to adverse court decisions that pared back certain transparency provisions and confusing structure and wording. Notable changes include:

·        Makes clear that final votes must be taken in public, including on real estate transactions;

·        Clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request;

·        Lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page;

·        Enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations;

·        Requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed;

·        Provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing the Attorney General to bring civil or criminal actions against violators;

·        Increases fines for violations to a maximum of $1000, and up to $2500 for additional violations within a year. Prior fines were a maximum of $100 for an Open Records violation and a maximum of  $500 for an Open Meetings violation;

·        Updates language regarding trade secrets and electronic documents to ensure transparency is not compromised by technological advances; and

·        Incorporates various court rulings to simplify the law.

 

“HB 397 advances good government policy by ensuring citizens’ access to government, while recognizing the need for government to operate efficiently and protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information,” said Olens. “The law signed today will enable Georgians to clearly understand their rights and assist governments in more effectively responding to citizens. Moreover, it provides my office the tools needed to properly enforce the law.”

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