Add some bite

Published 5:59 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Parents may stress the concept of personal safety to their children, but for some kids, the idea of “don’t touch the hot stove” never really comes home until they singe their fingertips.

It’s a succinct, powerful lesson: Break the rule, get burned.

But for recalcitrant government officials in Georgia, failure to follow the law on open records and open meetings never brings about the immediate—and educational—penalty that it should.

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If they break the rules, all that results is some finger-wagging from the state or a mild tut-tut. The tepid penalties in current law impose a mere $100 fine for knowingly withholding public information from the citizens.

When one considers the fact the doorway to black deeds is the secrecy that hides them, it’s appalling how little regard current law gives to this violation of the public trust.

This is national “Sunshine Week,” designed to focus public attention on the need for transparent government. How is Georgia doing?

While newspapers like this one fight for the public’s right for open meetings and records, a recent article from The Associated Press suggests that the Georgia Attorney General’s Office has a long way to go in terms of enforcement.

The AP looked at about 2,200 sunshine law complaints and concluded that “the state has not criminally prosecuted any open records or open meetings complaints since the Georgia Attorney General’s Office began mediating those cases in 1998.”

Zilch. Zero. Zip. Nada.

The AG’s office argues that the purpose of the mediation effort is to avoid going to court, by rendering opinions on whether documents should be open to the public. That’s one way to look at it. In fact, government officials usually see the error of their ways once the attorney general’s office explains the law.

Still, the AP has found at least a dozen cases in which the attorney general’s office declined to pursue probable violations in court.

Stefan Ritter, the senior assistant AG who oversees open government issues, has said some of the cases were never pursued because of the piddling penalty violators face. In essence, why focus the limited resources of the state office when the maximum price a culprit might pay equals two fill-ups in an SUV?

Such reasoning is troubling, but understandable.

State Attorney General Sam Olens is pushing legislation that would increase penalties from $100 to a $1,000 fine for initial Sunshine Law violations, and $2,500 for each subsequent violation within 12 months of the first.

The bill Mr. Olens favors, HB 397, could use some tweaking to avoid unintentionally crimping the flow of public information (for instance, the bill drops current language that forbids state agencies from putting documents into private hands, in order to avoid disclosure).

The new penalty should put some canines in an otherwise toothless law. However, that’s only one-half of the equation.

Along with the tougher penalties must come a real commitment on the part of the attorney general’s office to stand up for the public’s right to know what its government is up to.

Letting governments in Georgia conduct the public’s business in secret prevents voters from holding their elected officials accountable. That’s a clear threat to a healthy democracy.

Georgians deserve protection. That means enacting a state sunshine law with real penalties, then enforcing it with zeal.

by The Savannah Morning News