The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a former city official who violated the Open Records Act.
Back in 2019, Jenna Garland, who at the time was the press secretary for the City of Atlanta, was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of violating the state's Sunshine Laws.
When the media requested records that could have been unflattering to then Mayor Kasim Reed, Garland told a subordinate to draw out the records process and to make it difficult for the records requestor.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr decided to criminally prosecute the records violation. Georgia's Open Records Act is clear and local governments must respond to public records requests within three business days.
Garland obstructed the records production process and texts uncovered in the investigation showed that she instructed the communications officer to be as "unhelpful as possible."
Consequently, Garland was the first person prosecuted and found guilty of violating the Georgia Open Records Act, following the first-ever criminal investigation for Sunshine Law violations by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Violating open government laws in Georgia is no laughing matter.
It is criminal.
Garland was ordered to pay fines of $1,500 for two violations and she received no probation or jail time. In many respects, though convicted, you might say she got off light, because criminal violations of the open government laws in Georgia are misdemeanors punishable by up to $1,000 for just the first violation. A penalty of up to $2,500 may be imposed for each additional violation within a 12-month period. Similar fines can be imposed for violations of the Open Meetings Act.
This case has made it clear that a person can violate the law not only by withholding records or meeting secretly but by frustrating or attempting to frustrate the public's access to records and meetings.
This conviction was a watershed moment as it relates to the enforcement of the Sunshine Law in Georgia.
This case did not even involve an out-and-out records denial. It was all about stalling, or delaying, an open records request.
Records custodians must be helpful when the public asks for public records. That's their job.
Every public information officer, communications director, press secretary, records custodian, spokesperson and, of course, all elected and appointed officials should take this case very seriously and realize they are working for the public, and all the records they hold and meetings they conduct are public records and public meetings.
The General Assembly has said that open government is the strong public policy of the state of Georgia.
The Attorney General sent a strong message when he decided to prosecute this case, and now he needs to followup because his office is receiving numerous complaints of records and meetings violations across the state.
Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's director of newsroom training and development and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.