Assistant State Attorney Stefan Ritter on Tuesday, Feb. 19, will lead a seminar on how to use Georgia’s sunshine laws, which help the public monitor how government funds are spent and politicians conduct business.
Ritter will appear at the community workshop “Gwinnett Gets Informed: Georgia’s Open Meetings & Records Act,” which will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church, 4545 Timmers Way, Norcross.
The senior state attorney will discuss recent revisions to the Open Meetings & Records Act and explain how Georgia’s sunshine laws empower the public to hold politicians and public agencies accountable for their actions.
“Open government laws are some of the best tools a citizen has to monitor its own government,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “The sunshine laws let citizens see the meetings and records of its own government. Therefore, the better a citizen knows how to use the open government laws, the better informed it will be."
Georgia’s Open Meetings & Records Act gives the public the power to attend most government meetings and inspect most documents that show how schools, cities, states and federal offices operate and spend money.
The law was rewritten last spring to increase fines for violators who fail to respond to requests for public documents or are slow to respond to requests. The penalty for violations was raised from $500 to $1,000. Repeat offenders who commit multiple violations in a year could face fines of up to $2,500.
The revision also provided additional exemptions from certain meetings, such as training classes attended by a quorum of elected officials as long as official business is not discussed. It also reduced copy costs for documents from 25-cents-per-page to 10-cents-per-page.
Community activists and the media routinely file open records requests. Some document inspections have led to investigations that expose government corruption, wasteful spending, safety concerns, loopholes in laws, and other problems. Some examples include the following:
- An inspection of public records by a community group revealed that Gwinnett County Schools allocated more than $1 million in recent years to pay the salaries of two employees at the Gwinnett Chamber without clearly informing taxpayers. Records show that the district paid $150,000 annually to Partnership Gwinnett to fund positions that recruit new businesses to the county. The money was spent during a time when teachers faced furlough days.
- A lawsuit was recently filed against the Gwinnett Chamber and the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners for allegedly violating open records laws. A community group leader filed the lawsuit after she was refused information explaining how the Chamber spends public money it receives from county government, Gwinnett Schools, local cities, and the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, among other public entities.
- An analysis of state standardized test data - public records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution- prompted a state investigation into cheating on the 2009 Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
- The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last February that the Atlanta City Council violated the Open Meetings law when it did not provide an Atlanta Progressive News editor with information about how council members attending a retreat voted to change public comment rules.
The Gwinnett Gets Informed: Open Meetings & Records Act workshop is part of a series of seminars organized by Gwinnett Gets Informed, a grassroots organization working to educate taxpayers about important issues in their community.
"Ordinary citizens can help rectify extraordinary injustices and improprieties simply by exercising their right to public information," said Jen Falk, founder of Gwinnett Gets Informed, a community coalition. "Gwinnett residents and public officials are fortunate to have access to Mr. Ritter. I hope the room is jam-packed and residents leave knowing that they can make a difference in their own community."
For more information on the seminar or future events, call 678-632-3255 or email email@example.com.