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Thursday, May 5, 2011 - 1:24pm

Olens: Sunshine Violations Widespread

The state Attorney General says, elected officials across the state are violating Georgia's sunshine laws.

Sam Olens told members of Savannah's City Council that he expects more open and transparent government.

The city came under Olen's scrutiny for violating sunshine laws three times.

The violations occurred when City Council held private meetings related to the search for a new City Manager.

Olens described his visit as a "workshop" to help the council.

He says, it's a lesson he could hold with many elected officials in Georgia because the problems are widespread.

"We're getting about 400 complaints this year," Olens says. "And the complaints are very uniform: open meetings violations, violations regarding executive session, failure to give records timely."

Olens says, any time a quorum of elected officials discusses public business, it's a meeting -- and subject to laws requiring public notice.

"When you go to a meeting and they cover 20 agenda items in 15 minutes, that's a government that decided everything outside the presence of their voters," Olens says.

He says, it's a meeting even if such a discussion is done by e-mail -- including on personal computers -- and even if it's done casually over lunch.

"Nothing's casual," replied Mayor Otis Johnson. "This will fundamentally alter the way this council interacts with one another."

Olens has proposed overhauling the sunshine laws.

His proposal, HB 397, would clarify and strengthen provisions dealing with when public officials can meet in private.

He says, public hearings on the proposed legislation will be scheduled over the summer.