A FACE-LIFT FOR THE GEORGIA OPEN RECORDS ACT?
Posted by Christina Cribbs
This legislative session the Georgia Open Records Act is going under the knife. The Georgia General Assembly is currently taking under consideration fairly extensive changes to the Act (O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70 to § 50-18-77). The Open Records Act allows any member of the public to access, inspect, and reproduce public records. After a request for records, any public office or agency must respond within three business days and make the requested records available for viewing and/or copying. Charges for researching and pulling the responsive records and for copying the records may apply.
Not all information retained by a public agency is available through an open records request; in fact, the new version of the Act includes 44 exceptions to the general rule of accessibility. Government records not available to the public through an open records request include medical files, personal information about government employees, information regarding a pending law enforcement investigation, and information covered by the attorney-client privilege.
The proposed changes to the Open Records Act are compiled in House Bill 397 (“HB 397”), which was authored by Georgia’s Attorney General, Sam Olens. If passed, the new version of the Act would more narrowly define what is covered by the attorney-client privilege by making any factual findings of an attorney’s investigation available to the public through an open records request. The legal conclusions of an attorney conducting an investigation on behalf of a government agency would still be protected by the privilege.
Other changes to the Open Records Act proposed by HB 397 include an increase in fines for violations, and a decrease in the maximum charge for copies. Any person or entity that knowingly and willfully violates the Open Records Act by failing to provide access to records, or by making records difficult to review, would be subject to a fine up to $1,000. This is an increase from the current $500 maximum fine. The new Bill would also reduce the maximum charge for copies from .25 cents per page to .10 cents per page. Both of these changes favor greater accessibility of records and should make government cooperation more likely and record reproduction fees less expensive.
The House has already passed HB 397; the future of the Open Records Act is now in the hands of the Senate. As for that face-lift, the doctor is still out.