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Thursday, August 4, 2011 - 10:58am

AG Wants to Overhaul Sunshine Law

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens wants a revamped state Sunshine law that would stiffen penalties and increase enforcement. He spoke Thursday at the Atlanta Press Club about changes he has proposed. But those changes don't include suggesting that legislators and the Governor be subject to the law.

The sunshine law allows Georgians access to documents and meetings to stay on top of what school boards, city councils and other public bodies are doing.
Olens supports a host of changes that are part of a bill that Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla proposed during this year’s legislative session. House Bill 397 stalled but lawmakers will re-consider it next year.

The changes include issuing higher fines and stiffer criminal penalties for violations of the open meeting and records acts.

But Olens says he can only go so far. Legislators, he says, won’t quickly approve a bill targeted at them or the Governor.

"I don’t want this to be a five-year process," he said in response to a reporter's question. "I don’t want it to be a ten-year process. I want these changes to be approved next year. So I suggest to you that if you go up to legislators and say, ‘How about if we revise 397 to include the executive branch,' the bill is dead on arrival.”

In his talk to journalists and others at the Press Club, he said changes to open meeting provisions are a key part of the proposed overhaul.

Olens says more serious violations occur when public officials discuss matters in private. He issued citations this year to three Savannah officials for closed-door meetings they had held.

"When you go to a public meeting, and they cover 20 topics in 15 minutes, please don’t think that the meeting’s agenda was handled at the meeting," he said. "So the most meaningful change in this re-write frankly relates to the meetings act rather than public records."

Olens says there will be a hearing on the proposed overhaul on Aug. 30 at the state Capitol during the special redistricting session.