ZACHARY: Open government, better government

By Jim Zachary 

Sometimes local elected officials complain that cities and counties are required to comply with Sunshine Law mandates from the state but the General Assembly exempts itself from those same requirements. 

Oddly, most of those officials are not suggesting that the General Assembly should adhere to the same level of transparency. Rather, they think local governments should not be required to comply with open meetings and open records laws. 

That is bad thinking all the way around. 

Government, at all levels, must be held accountable and the only way for the public to hold government accountable is for all of the actions of government to be out in the open. That is why open government is part and parcel of a free society.  

When government is allowed to operate behind closed doors, it grows out of control, is not responsive to the public and is subject to corruption.

These are some of the reasons the media, watchdog groups — and most importantly the general public — should be committed to government transparency.

Newspapers, in particular, have a long legacy of holding government accountable, and operating as the Fourth Estate. Sadly, many newspapers have abandoned that role, leaving it up to the general public to police local governments.

All public officials, at all levels of government, must understand the difference between the public sector and the private sector.

Whether discussing finances, facilities, daily operations or public policy, all of the people’s business must be deliberated in public and not be hidden behind closed doors. Deliberating public business in the back room, or in closed-door executive sessions, is not only poor public service, in most cases and in most states, it is simply against the law for cities and counties, except for a very narrow list of reasons. 

In the state of Georgia the law says:

“The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions. The General Assembly further finds and declares that there is a strong presumption that public records should be made available for public inspection without delay. This article shall be broadly construed to allow the inspection of governmental records. The exceptions set forth in this article, together with any other exception located elsewhere in the Code, shall be interpreted narrowly to exclude only those portions of records addressed by such exception” (O.C.G.A. 50-18-70).

Most states have similar language in their Sunshine Laws.

As a matter of course, the General Assembly makes committee meetings, where a lot of the real public business is done, open and accessible to the public. That level of transparency is commendable. Why not codify it and why not make all of the state’s business just as transparent as city and county public business in Georgia? 

After all, it is all the people’s business. 

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI’s regional editor for its Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is the vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and can be emailed at jzachary@cnhi.com.

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