The following piece is an editorial column that reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.
Because of your appointment by Governor Nathan Deal, you have not run a statewide campaign before (at least not for yourself), which means you have not put together a campaign platform on what you seek to do with the office of the Attorney General.
The majority of Georgians hear more about the ongoing water wars, your participation in a national human trafficking prevention task force, and consumer protection alerts than they do about the enforcement of open government laws. All of the aforementioned things are good things, but in my humble opinion, holding city and county governments (development authorities and hospital boards, too) accountable is one of your most important duties as Attorney General.
You previously announced that you had intentions to start a “Sunshine Tour” around the Peach State to raise awareness about the open government laws. I think this is a wonderful idea and personally know of more than a dozen places that are in dire need of help immediately. While I don’t know the specifics of the tour or how you plan to conduct it, I am hopeful that you will include The People – especially those who have been wronged by the system – in the conversation. The last thing we need is another Georgia Municipal Association-esque gathering that is closed to the public and entertains more conversation by elected officials on how to skirt the rules than to play by them.
As you are well aware, though, a Sunshine Tour will barely melt the tip of the iceberg.
Here are a few things I feel should be incorporated into your 2018 campaign platform before any of us focused on transparency or accountability can support you.
- Your office needs to require the posting of ‘Open Meetings Act’ rules at all county and municipal meeting gatherings.
I am a strong believer in the necessity for and responsibility of active and engaged citizens, but I am aware of many instances where someone in local elected office pleaded “ignorance” after violating some aspect of the Act. This happens even more frequently in rural counties where a city attorney is only present at meetings by request. I have learned that, in many cases, ignorance very well may be the cause, but it should not excuse illegal behavior by those who are elected to serve. A public posting would protect both the citizens and the elected officials.
- Your office needs at least FIVE full-time deputy attorney general’s dedicated solely to evaluating complaints from citizens and journalists and enforcing Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act laws.
Your deputy attorney generals are overwhelmed and I understand that, but it hurts the causes of activists and journalists when they cannot obtain information. Personally, I have an open complaint I filed last fall that, despite repeated emails, I have not heard back about since December 22, 2016. I was also contacted by the Attorney General’s Office about a story I wrote in April. I was told to contact the office with questions, but when I did, my calls and emails went unreturned. Both relate to the Open Records Act, which subsequently means, without enforcement, I cannot obtain the documents. That is not only disappointing and illegal, but damaging to the local community as a whole.
I am certainly not the only one who deals with this dead end. Citizens and activists alike contact your office in need of assistance and cannot get it because of a backlog. While most accept the ‘backlog’ to be the reason, after some time, it becomes more and more difficult to believe it is backlog and not a lack of importance or because of political ties that someone is not receiving a response.
Assigning a deputy AG a region of the state – NEGA, NWGA – Atlanta to Macon – SWGA and SEGA – could eliminate the long drives and far reaching for an AG and also allow the deputy AG to become acquainted with a region and its problem areas. Of course, I do not know what turnover is like in your office, but they should be on an annual rotating basis to avoid becoming too close to citizens or elected officials. We are all human, after all.
- Your office needs help with enforcement…and it cannot come from the Superior Court.
While we would all like to believe that our Superior Court judges are acting autonomously, and in many larger counties they are, in some of the rural, more antiquated counties, this simply is not the case.
People should have the ability to file an injunction regionally. While this is already the case in some regions (i.e. – the Atlantic Judicial Circuit contains Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, and Tattnall counties), it should be required that, when filing an injunction, a judge other than the one from a home county judge must oversee the case. Please do not leave it up to the judge to recuse themselves – I assure you they will not.
In the far corners of the state, the ‘good ‘ol boy system’ is alive and well. Recourse needs to be available, when the time is right, outside the county Magistrate, State, and Superior Courts. It is the only avenue to ensure a few degrees of separation.
- Your office needs to crack down on enforcement.
Throw the book at an elected official or twenty.
Please do not let anyone in your office worry about the blowback of slapping elected officials with training requirements, fines, and censure. The People are on your side and there are more of them than there are elected officials.
You have a real opportunity to show that transparency and accountability are not partisan positions and that no one will receive special treatment under the law. If word were to spread that the Attorney General’s Office was making examples out of elected officials who violate the law, I believe you would see a reduction in complaints because compliance would increase.
- I would love to see your office require baseline documents to be available online and in the lobby of city halls and county annexes. Budgets, budget amendments, meeting minutes, City and County Charters, salaries of city and county employees, pay of elected officials (and benefits) — these things should be readily available without any cost to the citizens and without the delay of an Open Records Request.
I recognize that some of these items are outside the realm of your office, but no one is in a better position to advocate for change to the Acts in the Georgia legislature than you.
Unless you are in the thick of it, I do not believe you can truly understand the brazen disregard for accountability, transparency, and the law – even in reading some of the complaints. The truth is that the far reaching corners of our state operate much differently than the governments in large metropolis areas. Old-fashioned, antiquated, archaic – whatever you want to call it – local and county entities in rural areas have a transparency problem. You hold the keys to the bus that will carry Georgia down a pathway to change. I hope you will consider the need for an aggressive driver.
Good luck on the campaign trail.
“Transparency is not the same as looking straight through a building: It’s not just a physical idea, it’s an intellectual one.”