ATLANTA - Georgia’s Open Records Act is supposed to keep public officials transparent and guarantee they’re acting in the best interest of the state.
But the elected officials who wrote that law made themselves exempt from it.
The public can get details from the personal calendar of the University of Georgia president, emails from Atlanta’s mayor or the travel expenses of sheriffs. They cannot, however, look at records on how state lawmakers deal to get laws passed or square the state’s $43 million budget.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, a first-term Democrat from Sandy Springs. “I’ve always wondered you know, what are people trying to hide?”
Using Georgia’s open records law, it took Channel 2 Action News two days to get the names and salaries of every employee of the Georgia Department of Public Health. The station received the same information from the Georgia Department of Labor in four hours.
The Georgia House and Senate rejected requests for names and salaries of their staff, citing their offices’ exemption from the law.
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“Why are the lists of people who work in a particular office shielded? Why are their salaries shielded?” Jordan asked. “Because, to be quite frank, I can’t get that information either.”
A government transparency advocate told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher that lawmakers could be shielding critical information beyond that of lawmaking.
“We don't know how many legislators have been sued, and what their settlement amounts were,” said Richard Griffiths, with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “Those are things the public deserves to know the answer to, and at this point, we don't know the answers.”
When Channel 2 Action News got a tip that the state paid $80,000 to settle a racial discrimination claim by a legislative staff member, we had to find the check paid out by the state accounting office because the legislature refused to share the documents.
Senior members of the Georgia General Assembly were reluctant to discuss the issue. House
Speaker David Ralston declined to be interviewed. He refused to share his official calendar with Channel 2 Action News when we investigated his use of the state’s Legislative Leave Law.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan also declined to be interviewed.
Georgia’s longest-serving Democratic state legislator, Rep. Calvin Smyre, did not return our phone calls.
House Republican Whip Trey Kelley of Cedartown defended the exemption. He said protecting the privacy of correspondence from constituents is a top priority.
“We have to strike a delicate balance,” Kelley said. “Our constituents have a right and an expectation of privacy when they're communicating with their legislators.”
When constituents write to Georgia’s governor, that is a public record. Kelley said voters feel closer to their legislators than they do the governor, sharing some of their most personal issues.
About records related to cases of misconduct, Kelley said transparency is important.
“Certainly, if there have been payouts and things where conduct has been found that's unacceptable, then we need to consider those changes,” Kelley said.
“Is this a Republican-Democrat thing or is this just the way business has always been done?” Belcher asked.
“I think it’s a power thing,” Jordan said.
Jordan said she thinks there will be a greater likelihood of changes in the law when the legislature isn't dominated by one party. Right now, it's the Republicans. But when the law was passed, the legislature was dominated by Democrats.
When asked for comment on this story, Gov. Brian Kemp sent Belcher a statement saying he would "gladly sign legislation strengthening Georgia's open records law."
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