“Sunny” Day in ACC GovernmentPosted: April 22, 2010
Sometimes, in order to make your government a better place, all you have to do is ask.
Students from the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism conducted an open records audit of Athens-Clarke County during the month of March. Students went to government offices and requested specific records like business licenses, police records, and minutes from board meetings. The class also conducted an audit of some University records including police incident records, employment contracts, and yearly budgets.
The audit was conducted through the Georgia Student Sunshine Audit program in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. The GFAF aims to advance “the cause of open government and freedom of information through education and advocacy.” Those who might be concerned about ACC transparency need not worry, the government agencies passed the test with a few minor exceptions. In a few cases, the records requested did not exist or required extra time to find. Most of the students had little difficulty in obtaining the physical records, though getting over their fears proved hard.
“The procedure to attain records always seemed intimidating to me,” wrote Grady student Zhiyang Yu, “but now that I’ve actually placed a request, I’ve got more confidence to procure these things in the future.”
The process can seem intimidating but citizens of Georgia have the right to request documentation from their governments.
Suha Zakiuddin knew more about the Freedom of Information Act than the officials handling the annual budget did.
“I learned that not everyone knows what the FOI act is all about,” wrote Zakiuddin. “In my experience, the person I spoke to needed help because he never had a records request before.”
The record handlers did not turn over information at all in the only complete request failure.
“I’ve requested records for stories in the past and never had a problem getting them,” wrote Robert Carnes, “but here I was unable to procure a copy or even see the original.”
“Sunshine” laws are open record laws set in place in order to promote openness between the government and the people. The laws stem from the Freedom of Information Act signed by President Johnson in 1966 and amended by President Clinton in 1996. The basic principal behind the laws places most of the responsibility for the records on the government. Specific documents must be filed correctly and be readily available for any citizen who requests them, not just journalists. If the record keepers refuse, citizens can write a letter describing the law that allows them to request such papers and why it is the government organization’s duty to turn them over. The state of Georgia is often considered to have one of the most lenient open record laws in the United States.
Before the students asked for the records, they were briefed by a representative from the GFAF on how to remain under the radar and not appear like they were conducting an audit. Students were encouraged to dress nicely but not mention they were students. Under the open records laws, one does not have to mention what their occupation is, their name, or even what they want the records for. The audit was used as an exercise for journalism students to learn how to request records easily. But the general public could benefit from this knowledge too, say Grady professors.
Open records are vital to a journalist’s job, says Grady College professor Barry Hollander. The general public does not ask for these types of records often but they need to know that they are available at any time, he said. Hollander pointed out a recent local case where Hustler Magazine requested the crime scene photos of a murdered University of Georgia graduate. The Senate and the House passed bills to prohibits the release of the photos depicting the headless body along with other lewd crime-scene photos and recordings from 911 calls that include suffering victims.
“Larry Flynt, merely by asking for them, and the idea that they might be in Penthouse was enough to make the legislature to overreact and close something that has always been open record,” he said. “What if there’s a suspicious death? And a journalist comes along and wonders ‘Maybe this person was killed by deputies or someone with power enough to get it closed.’ If you can no longer get the autopsy and images, it’s very hard to investigate and challenge the government’s decision on that case.”
By auditing the local government, the Grady students hope that it will keep ACC records open and available to the public. Not just because records are handy to have, but because it’s the law.