VALDOSTA — So you think your local government has been illegally meeting in secret or withholding public records. What do you do?

There are a number of answers. The starting point, according to attorney David E. Hudson's "The Georgia Sunshine Laws Handbook," is to simply speak up.

"If you believe that a governing board or agency is illegally closing a meeting, tell them so. State that the Open Meetings Law ... requires that the meeting be open. Ask them to cite the exemption under which they are closing the meeting."

If the meeting remains closed, Hudson said, then put it in writing; file a written protest or send the agency involved a demand letter seeking minutes of the meeting and access to future meetings.

Another option is to "lawyer up."

"Go hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit," said Jennifer Colangelo, an attorney in the state attorney general's office.

Alternately, an informal mediation program run from the Attorney General's Office can sometimes get results, she said.

"Call or email us with the problem," Colangelo said. "The AG's office can try to work things out and get a record that's being sought."

She said sometimes the words "attorney general" on an envelope can make a difference.

"About once a year we get a case with a really, really recalcitrant government agency," she said. "We send a letter and things get straightened out."

Once in a while the problem boils down to a person in a position of authority who decides that "no one tells me what to do" until the city or county attorney advises them otherwise, Colangelo said.

Violators of Georgia’s open records and open meetings laws can face fines in civil court, Colangelo said.

Georgia code states 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 Hudson.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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