DOMELIGHT: Remove barriers between public and public records

Public records belong to the public.

The concept is not all that difficult.

During the last Georgia legislative session, State Rep. Jason Ridley introduced a measure related to the inspection of public records in the state.

Ridley’s bill said, “no agency shall enter into any agreement, contract, or understanding with any private entity which would allow such private entity to exclusively hold public records which are subject to disclosure; to provide that any agency which enters into any agreement, contract, or understanding with any private entity that may generate public records which would be subject to disclosure as a result of such agreement, contract, or understanding shall ensure that such public records shall not be held exclusively, regardless of limitations, by such private entity; to provide for related matters.”

The red flag raised by Ridley’s bill largely is why would it be needed?

Of course, the question is rhetorical.

There are way too many exemptions in the Georgia Open Records Act.

And when records custodians, department heads and elected officials seem to always be looking for ways to get around public disclosure and further erode rights of access, the people of Georgia have every right and reason to be concerned.

When third parties — businesses that store public records for government agencies for a fee — become yet another barrier between the public and public information, it is yet another affront to the Freedom of Information and basic rights of access.

The General Assembly itself has said that the strong public policy of the state of Georgia is openness.

Regardless of whether the records are held at the statehouse, the court house, city hall or by some third party, the people of Georgia should not only have access, they should have easy access to all records.

Frustrating records requests can essentially be tantamount to denial.

A person in Georgia should not have to be skilled, wealthy, well-versed in the law, or well-connected to gain quick and easy access to any public record.

Further more, state records, and for that matter meetings of state government, should be just as accessible as what is required by local government agencies in Georgia.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly has exempted itself from many of the same rights of public access that it requires of city and county government.

Whether, state, federal or local, what does government have to hide from the people?

An even more important question: What right does government have to hide anything from the people?

Thomas Jefferson was clear in the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He can be reached at jzachary@cnhi.com.

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