Gone are the dark clouds that had us blind.
Georgia's sunshine laws have been ambiguous, but Georgia's House Bill 397 parts some clouds.
State agencies, including boards, authorities, bureaus and commissions, are subject to HB 397.
State agencies can lawfully go into closed executive session for some matters, but there is no mandate that agencies do so.
Topics of personnel, pending litigation and land sale or acquisition fall under closed session topics for public schools, but more is often hidden from view than is allowed by law. A quick study of HB 397 for some may prevent sun damage.
In a 2001 ruling in The Claxton Enterprise v. Evans County the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a meeting could not be closed to meet with an attorney for "potential litigation" unless there has been actual threat of a suit.
In the same year, in Moon v. Terrell County, the court held that a meeting discussing personnel matters may not be closed simply because the public employee wishes it so.
In the event that one or more persons in an executive session initiate discussion that is not authorized pursuant to Code Section 50-14-3, the presiding officer shall immediately rule the discussion out of order and all present shall cease the questioned conversation.
If members continue after the ruling, the presiding officer shall adjourn the executive session.
Superior courts of Georgia can force compliance; the state attorney general can bring civil or criminal action against those knowingly and persistently out of compliance with law.
Public school records are subject to the same legal requirements regarding disclosure with few exceptions. Annual evaluations of school superintendents and teachers are confidential.
Student disciplinary records are confidential; however, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act is often used by school boards to keep secret more than the law allows. FERPA protects the identities of students and their educational records. Once redacted, school boards should produce documents that pertain to matters of public interest.
Settlements aren't protected. The U.S. District Court in Mullins v. City of Griffin (1995) reasoned that the use of public funds to execute a settlement trumped confidentiality.
And new code revisions create a standard for awarding attorney fees, giving the public and press a better chance of recovery if one prevails in litigation over an open meetings or records dispute. If the complainant prevails and the court finds that the agency acted without justification, the law now says the court shall assess attorney fees and other reasonable costs of the litigation against the defending agency or board.
The Court of Appeals ruled in 2002 in Evans County Board of Commissioners v. The Claxton Enterprise that anyone entitled to attorney fees in litigation enforcing the Open Meetings Act is entitled to fees both at the trial level and for the appeal if one becomes necessary.
Georgians live too close to the beach to be kept in the dark; HB 397 is the rainbow I've been praying for.
Jeff Meadors is the District 1 representative on the Newton County Board of Education. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.