The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News on Wednesday night donated $80,000 to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation to promote citizen access to public records and institutions in the state.
The donation resulted from the AJC and Channel 2’s recently concluded efforts to bring the city of Atlanta into compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act. The AJC, Channel 2 and the city earlier this month settled a complaint the newsrooms filed in April with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr that alleged “a culture of political interference” with open records requests under the administration of former mayor Kasim Reed.
Out of that settlement, the city will draft a comprehensive policy to govern how City Hall responds to requests for public information with input from the two media outlets. A new ordinance pushed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms creates the position of transparency officer to oversee records production, conduct mandatory annual open records training and create a public website tracking records requests.
Earlier this year, the AJC and Channel 2 revealed a pattern of open records abuses under the Reed administration, including efforts by the city’s communications and law departments to hinder production of public documents. The new ordinance gives independence to the transparency officer to oversee the city’s processing of public records.
As part of the settlement, the city also paid the news organizations $80,000 as partial reimbursement of legal fees. The city’s settlement money will fund the donation to the First Amendment foundation.
Richard T. Griffiths, president of the 24-year-old nonprofit, said the money will be used to train the public and journalists how to obtain records from the city of Atlanta and other governments in Georgia, and how to challenge government officials who attempt to thwart such access.
At the foundation’s Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award dinner Wednesday night, Griffiths credited the city of Atlanta under Bottoms with taking “a revolutionary new approach, by embracing open government on steroids.”
“The mayor and the City Council have gone beyond the core requirements of the Open Records Act to promise a whole new approach,” Griffiths said. “To hire a transparency officer, put government data online, and build a tracking system to keep an eye on the open records requests. … Out of tough conflict has come great creativity.”
But Griffiths cautioned that the new legislation is a first step, and requires follow through on the part of city leadership.
Alex Taylor, president and CEO of Cox Enterprises, said the company strongly supported efforts to make local governments transparent. Cox Enterprises is the parent company of Cox Media Group, which includes the AJC and WSB-TV.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the team at WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its watchdog reporting on this incredibly important matter and proving, once again, that local journalism matters,” Taylor said in a statement. “The First Amendment and state laws such as the Georgia Open Records Act are essential to our democracy and freedom as citizens because they enable us to see how our government works. We support the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in its mission to hold our public officials accountable and demand transparency in government.”
Channel 2 News Director Misti Turnbull said the newsrooms working together uncovered a pattern of misconduct.
“We made the fairly unusual move of filing a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s office in hopes that through mediation we could help facilitate lasting change,” Turnbull said. She said the television station and newspaper had substantial input into the new city legislation and thanked the city for its cooperation.
AJC Editor Kevin Riley said he hoped the $80,000 donation not only helps the foundation in its mission, but inspires government leaders, journalists and the public to support open government and the First Amendment, something he called “one of the great ideas of Western civilization.”
“We all realize that Atlanta will be a better place because of what happened this year,” Riley said.
Georgia’s sunshine laws were written to ensure that governments remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and provide records as soon as they are available.
Frustrating requests is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail.
In March, Carr ordered the GBI to open the state’s first-ever criminal investigation of open records matters after the AJC and Channel 2 uncovered efforts by Jenna Garland, a press secretary for Reed, to delay production of water billing records for city elected officials to Channel 2, advising one official to “be as unhelpful as possible” and “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”
Subsequent reporting found the law department provided legal invoices to the AJC last year that weren’t genuine records.
The AJC and Channel 2 also uncovered text messages last year by Reed’s former top spokeswoman, Anne Torres, that showed she pressured the Atlanta Beltline’s then-CEO to ignore the advice of the agency’s attorney and delay the release of the CEO’s employment contract.
The Beltline, however, followed the law.
At the dinner, Griffiths honored Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson, who was then the Beltline’s lawyer, for standing up to the Reed administration to comply with the law.
Other text messages obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 raised questions about whether Reed may have played a role in delaying production of travel records for Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell.
Reed and others have denied any wrongdoing.
In September, the GBI turned over its case file to Carr’s office, which will decide whether evidence warrants prosecution.