Attorney General Sam Olens has been a vocal proponent of government transparency since his days serving in local government. Shortly after being sworn-in as Attorney General, he began working with sponsor Representative Jay Powell and various stakeholders on HB 397, a bill to make Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records Laws more user-friendly for citizens. HB 397 was overwhelmingly passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal on April 17, 2012.
HB 397 makes a number of significant improvements to a law that had become convoluted due to adverse court decisions that pared back certain transparency provisions and confusing structure and wording. Notable changes include:
- Makes clear that final votes must be taken in public, including on real estate transactions;
- Clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request;
- Lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page;
- Enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations;
- Requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed;
- Provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing the Attorney General to bring civil or criminal actions against violators;
- Increases fines for violations to a maximum of $1000, and up to $2500 for additional violations within a year. Prior fines were a maximum of $100 for an Open Records violation and a maximum of $500 for an Open Meetings violation;
- Updates language regarding trade secrets and electronic documents to ensure transparency is not compromised by technological advances; and
- Incorporates various court rulings to simplify the law.
“HB 397 advances good government policy by ensuring citizens’ access to government, while recognizing the need for government to operate efficiently and protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information,” said Attorney General Olens. “The revamped law will enable Georgians to clearly understand their rights and assist governments in more effectively responding to citizens. Moreover, it provides my office the tools needed to properly enforce the law.”