AG Chris Carr: Frequently Asked Questions When It Comes to Open Records and Open Meetings

Staff Report From Georgia CEO

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

The Georgia constitution states that public officials are “servants of the people,” and the Office of the Attorney General has a long and proud tradition of encouraging openness in governmental meetings and records.

“As public officials, we are simply trustees of the people’s documents,” said Attorney General Chris Carr. “Our office takes very seriously our role in open government, and we will continue to work with municipalities, state agencies, the media and all interested parties to promote and protect transparent government in Georgia.”

In 2017, Attorney General Chris Carr instituted an Open Government Tour in Georgia as part of a larger effort to educate members of the community, elected officials, state record keepers and others about their duties and responsibilities under Georgia’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) and Open Records Act (ORA). In addition, the Office of the Attorney General recently compiled the following list of Frequently Asked Questions as it relates to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. Though the list does not cover all intricacies of the OMA and the ORA, our website includes a wealth of information for those looking to gain a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities, including the full Citizen’s Guide for Open Government.

Who do I send my Open Records request to?

An agency may appoint an Open Records officer, and if they have done so, your request should be sent to that person. If an Open Records officer has been appointed, that information will be on the agency’s website. Their website may also have a form that can be filled in and submitted online. If that information is not available online, a phone call to the city clerk or county clerk is usually the fastest way to find out the right person to send your request to.

Why can’t I just look at records instead of paying for copies?

The Open Records Act allows (and sometimes requires) certain information to be redacted from records before they are made available to the public. For example, social security numbers and financial account numbers usually need to be redacted. When a record contains that kind of information, the redactions will need to be done even if you just want to view the records without making copies. The agency should use the most efficient method possible to redact the records, and sometimes the most efficient way to do the redactions is to print out the records.

What does “rolling access” mean?

When a large number of records are requested, some may be immediately available while other take longer to locate and produce.  When that happens, an agency should allow the requester to inspect the records as they become available, rather than waiting to produce them once all records are available, unless the requesting party wishes to wait until all records are available.

Can an agency charge a flat rate for certain types of records?

An agency may only charge a “flat fee” for records if there is a specific statute that allows it. For example, O.C.G.A. § 40-9-30 allows a law enforcement agency to charge $5 for a copy of a Uniform Motor Vehicle Accident Report. However, an agency may not charge a flat fee for records unless specifically authorized by state law; otherwise, the amount charged should be based on the number of copies made and the hourly rate of the lowest-paid full-time employee who has the necessary skills to produce the records.

Are city councils allowed to go on out-of-town “retreats”?

Many cities and counties have annual “retreats,” where a meeting is held at an out-of-town location. These types of meetings are allowed by the Open Meetings Act. Annual retreats are frequently held for the purpose of strategic planning, discussion of long-term goals, training, team-building or similar activities. However, these retreats must still follow the procedural requirements of the OMA, such as proper notice and posting of an agenda. Minutes should also be produced after the meeting.

Who is allowed to be in an executive session?

Agencies must determine on a case-by-case basis which people may remain in a closed session, permitting only those persons whose presence is consistent with an applicable exception to remain in the closed meeting. For example, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3(b)(1)(B) allows meetings to be closed for a discussion of “negotiations to purchase, dispose of, or lease property.” It may be appropriate for board or council members, if they chose, to include in their closed session the current owners of the real estate in question and their attorneys or agents.

Doesn’t the city or county have to allow public comments at their meetings?

The Open Meetings Act does not require (or prohibit) an opportunity for public comments at meetings. An agency may set time limits for public comments, and may decide whether to allow comments at the beginning or the end of the meeting.

How can I get copies of court records?

Superior, State, Probate, and Magistrate Courts are not subject to the Open Records Act. Although court records are public records, a court’s procedures for viewing and copying files may be different than the procedures required by the ORA. In addition, the Attorney General has not been given the authority to mediate complaints about the accessibility of court records.

Are Homeowner’s Associations subject to the ORA or the OMA?

Homeowner’s Associations are not subject to the ORA or OMA. Associations are privately funded by Homeowners who pay association dues, and are not governmental or quasi-governmental agencies that fall within the coverage of the OMA or the ORA.