Facing the music for breaking open records law

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VALDOSTA — If you do the crime, you pay the fine.

Violators of Georgia’s open records and open meetings laws can face fines in civil court, although other avenues for remedy can be used, according to Jennifer Colangelo, Georgia's assistant Attorney General.

Georgia code states that penalties for “failing or refusing to provide access to records not subject to exemption” or “making records difficult to obtain and review” start at a $1,000 fine for the first violation. The fine jumps to $2,500 for repeat offenses within 12 months of the first penalty.

Anyone who destroys public records to prevent their disclosure can be prosecuted for a felony with a possible prison term between two and 10 years.

“The penalties for violating the Open and Public Meetings Law are the same (as for open records violations,)” Colangelo said.

A court can also award attorney’s fees if a challenge to a closed meeting succeeds, and a civil fine of $1,000 can be imposed for violating the act through negligence, according to “The Georgia Sunshine Laws Handbook,” written by attorney David E. Hudson.

To avoid the time and expense of a lawsuit, the Attorney General’s office runs an unofficial mediation program that tries to iron out problems with government transparency, she said.

“Oftentimes we can get a local government body to agree to a settlement involving a fine, an agreement not to do it again and possibly training,” she said.

The tactic is used with harder cases “who should’ve known better” and have multiple offenses, Colangelo said.

“A lawsuit costs so much,” she said. “I hate it to get to that.”

Challenging the legality of a government meeting can have consequences.

Colangelo said any vote or decision taken at a meeting that violates the open meetings act is null and void.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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