City of Atlanta agrees to settle records case with AJC, WSB-TV

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have agreed to drop their claims against the city of Atlanta for what the media organizations described as "systemic violations" of the Georgia Open Records Act, according to an agreement reached this week.

Under the agreement, the city will work with the news outlets over the next 90 days in drafting a comprehensive policy that will govern how the city responds to public records requests.

“The City has taken yet another step in creating a more open government by cementing a resolution with The Atlanta Journal Constitution and WSB-TV and we look forward to implementing the recommendations,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in a statement Wednesday.

[READ: GBI will open criminal investigation into former Mayor Reed's press office]

The standards contained in the new policy will go a few steps further than what is currently in the Georgia Open Records Act, according to the agreement.

At a minimum, the city will have to produce records that are easy to retrieve and don’t require redaction within three days, according to the agreement. State law requires that government entities respond to records requests within three days and to either provide the records or a time when they will be available.

For records that “require redaction or are difficult to retrieve,” the city employee who has access to them must produce them as soon as practicable and in compliance with the Act, under a timeframe to be set by the city policy. For records that “are unusually difficult to retrieve,” the city employee must notify the city’s “transparency officer” in the event that more than 10 days or more are needed to produce them, and must obtain approval if more than 20 days are needed.

[READ: GBI 'conducting interviews, collecting documents' at Atlanta City Hall]

"We look forward to the City implementing the reforms set forth in the City's transparency ordinance and our agreement, which will help achieve transparency in all aspects of Atlanta's government," said Michael A. Caplan, a lawyer who represented the AJC and Channel 2 Action News on the complaint.

The Georgia Open Records Act is the primary means by which journalists and the public and can learn how public money is spent and to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

But reporting from the AJC and Channel 2 Action News has showed that under former Mayor Kasim Reed's administration, the law was often subverted.

The agreement, along with a transparency ordinance negotiated by the parties and approved by the city council last month, are intended to ensure that the city makes every effort to comply with the law.

The new city ordinance requires the city to hire a transparency officer, provide mandatory annual open records training for employees and create a public website that tracks public records requests, among other things.

The agreement, ordinance, and the soon-to-be drafted policy, were the result of months of negotiations between the AJC and Channel 2 Action News and the city, under the Attorney General's mediation program.

"The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have led this fight for the city to be more transparent about its decisions and policies," said AJC Editor Kevin Riley. "We have done that in the name of citizens who deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent. We haven't asked for anything that any citizen shouldn't have ready access to."

In April, the news organizations filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr that outlined 10 examples of alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act dating to July 2016. The media outlets requested mediation to remedy the repeated violations of state law.

The organizations also reported extensively on what legal experts said revealed potentially criminal behavior within Reed’s administration. His administration delayed production of public records and created documents resembling legal invoices in a response to an AJC records request last year.

The reporting prompted the first Georgia Bureau of Investigation criminal probe into open records violations in the state’s history. Those findings were turned over to Carr’s office last month for potential prosecution.

“As public officials, we are simply trustees of the people’s documents, and our office takes very seriously our role in preserving the integrity of open government laws” Carr said in a written statement on Wednesday. “I am proud that our Open Government Mediation Program and legal experts were able to help both parties reach an agreement, and we will continue to work with localities, state agencies, the media and all interested parties to promote and protect transparent government in Georgia.”

In a written statement released late Wednesday, Reed said his administration had a positive record in dealing with records requests.

“This story is a continuation of WSB’s and the AJC’s constant work to discredit the Reed Administration,” he said. “During my eight years as Mayor, the City responded to hundreds of requests made under the Georgia Open Records Act and made more than two million pages of documents available to the media and the public. The complaint filed by WSB and the AJC conveniently cherry-picked examples of rare instances where records took longer to produce and focused on outliers that were exceptions to the rule.”

Although Reed’s administration frequently proclaimed that his administration was the most transparent in the city’s history, he repeatedly drew national criticism from open government advocates.

In June, the national journalism organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, awarded the city of Atlanta its 2018 Golden Padlock Award given to the most secretive government agency or individual in the U.S. Reed was a finalist for the award the year before.

Atlanta was one of five cities that earned an F grade in a 2013 report from the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund that rates 30 of America’s largest cities for making government data available online. Reed also withheld from the public a federal grand jury subpoena showing that the federal investigation involved the mayor’s office and not just the Department of Procurement.

Under the agreement which was signed on Tuesday, the city will pay the two news organizations $80,000 — which represents a portion of their attorneys’ fees.

This story was written by Stephen Deere with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.