VALDOSTA – The community gathered at Valdosta State University to learn more about the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act and to hear the results of a local public records audit. 

The Valdosta State University Black Student League and the Valdosta Daily Times partnered to host a public forum at VSU’s Student Union.

During the forum, volunteer auditors shared their experience requesting public records from local government agencies. 

Payton Fletcher, David Jonathan “D.J.” Davis and Dr. Treva Gear filed requests for documents with the Lowndes County Board of Education, Valdosta Board of Education, Lowndes County Commission, City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department. Fletcher asked for all public participation requests for Lowndes County Board of Education meetings from June 1 to Aug. 31.

Fletcher emailed his open records request, marking the email with the subject line “Request for Information — FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)” to Randy Cooper, director of human resources for the Lowndes County Board of Education.

His use of the acronym FOIA prompted Cooper to respond, “Thank you for your inquiry. As I understand it, the FOIA is used to request information from the federal government and its agencies and does not apply to state or local government agencies. Therefore, we are not able to respond to a FOIA request.”

Fletcher said, “I would rate my experience with the county board of education a B. Cooper was willing to work with me once I clarified my request.”

Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is the president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the records custodian in that case could have easily supplied the documents despite Fletcher using the wrong terminology. “Records custodians should work with requestors and make it as easy as possible,” Zachary said. He said Cooper could have simply complied with the request and then explained the difference between FOIA and the state’s Open Records Act, instead of requiring exact wording, essentially a technicality. 

Davis requested all emails from Lowndes County Commission Chairman Bill Slaughter to District 2 Commissioner Scott Orenstein from June 1 through Aug. 31.

Davis said, “I am shocked that the county responded just by saying ‘Our office has no records responsive to your request.’ I wish I would have known the way to follow up on this request because I just cannot believe there are no emails between June 1 and Aug. 31.”

Gear requested all incident reports of car break-ins from June 1 through Aug. 31 from the Valdosta Police Department.

“I would grade my experience with the Valdosta Police Department an A,” Gear said, “I have made open records request with other local governments, and I have never received as quick and professional experience as I did with VPD.”

Additional open records were requested by Davis and Fletcher.

Those requests included all requests for public participation at Valdosta Board of Education meetings from June 1 to Aug. 31 and all emails from Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson to City Councilman at Large Ben Norton from June 1 through Aug. 31.

The public records audit was an experiment testing not only the openness of local government but also how it treats residents when they ask for any public records available for viewing or reproduction under the Open Records Act.

Zachary explained, “This audit was conducted to review how local government works with the public that may be well educated on open records and those that may not know exactly how to make a request.” He said, “The volunteers were not coached on how to communicate with records custodians. All of their experiences were genuine and generated a diverse audit.”

Zachary, who has conducted open government training throughout the state of Georgia for local government and community groups, said the media itself is good at accessing public documents but the point of the audit was to measure how difficult it is for the average person to navigate the public records process. 

The training at the VSU student union was designed to provide the public with a roadmap for how to request public documents and to help residents understand what records are available to them. 

Zachary said the Times serves the community by reporting what is going on throughout the coverage area and part of that work is done through accessing public records and attending open, public meetings. 

The audience shared experiences with local government, asked questions regarding specific open records policies, and received literature about open records and public meetings. 

The Times published a Freedom of Information; The Public’s Right to Know special edition that included a directory of local government records custodians, explanations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act, stories about community experiences with local government and the results of the first all local public records audit. 

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