Georgia governor details openness effort at FOI conference
January to bolster public access to meetings and records, he immediately began
to field a deluge of complaints from local and state leaders distressed that
they wouldn’t be allowed to conduct business in private.
“‘But we will have to cut out executive sessions,’” Barnes said, quoting a
city leader lobbying against the bills. “‘You’d have to be an idiot to even hold
an executive session.’ I was listening to him, and I thought, ‘He has finally
gotten the message.’”
Last month, Barnes declared victory as he signed into law two open-records
and open-meetings bills that overhauled the way city, county and state agencies
could conduct business.
Among the reforms: public officials must now sign an affidavit that any
meeting they close will adhere strictly to state law. Making a false statement
in an affidavit in Georgia is a felony punishable by one to five years
Freedom-of-information experts hail the new Georgia law, which goes into
effect on July 1, as one of the strongest FOI laws in the country. During the
National Freedom of Information Conference this weekend at Atlanta’s CNN Center,
Barnes got a hero’s reception after giving the conference’s keynote address.
Elected during the November 1998 general election, Barnes took office last
Jan. 11 and immediately announced that the open-meetings and open-records bills
were his first legislative priority. He said he would not introduce anything
else until they passed.
“Do you want to be a part of a state government that keeps access from
records and meetings or do you want to be on the side that says, ‘We don’t have
anything to hide?’” Barnes remembers telling state legislators during his first
State of the State address. “I tried to impress on them that openness is not
only good policy but good politics.”
The bills eventually sailed through both the Senate and the House with almost
unanimous support. On April 28, Barnes signed the measures into law.
The new open-records law requires officials to produce records within three
days of a request or provide a detailed written response as to why they won’t.
The response must explain when the record will be available or cite the legal
exception explaining why it won’t produce the record.
In introducing Barnes, Hyde Post, assistant managing editor for the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said that the governor’s openness efforts
stemmed from public-access legislation he introduced during his 20-year stint as
a state lawmaker.
“But he did more in the past legislative session on access than anyone had
been able to do in more than a decade,” Post said.
Although many attending the FOI conference this weekend were from news
organizations, Barnes stressed that government access wasn’t a right guaranteed
for the press, but one guaranteed for the public.
“This is not the right of the media to know, although they are often the
first users,” Barnes said. “This is the right of the individual to