Georgia Audit 2004

By Gwinnett Daily Post
December 19, 2004

When the Gwinnett Daily Post reporters cast a net for open records, they didn’t know what they’d pull back in.

We made a simple request of our sources. Simple and required of them by law to meet. What we found in some cases encouraged us. In other cases, we completely understand why those people we refer to as “Average Joes” get frustrated or don’t even bother getting involved. Sometimes the hassle to get public information, even those an entity is legally required to provide, is just not worth the trouble. Therein lies the rub: If an entity can put up enough roadblocks, will the person making the request just go away? What’s to keep them honest if no one’s asking any questions?

The Post’s open records project blossomed from a story correspondent Carole Townsend came across at a Norcross City Council meeting. In April, resident John Webb wanted to know how much the city spent on attorney fees.

One would think several things would have prompted the city to comply post haste. For one, Webb is the mayor’s son. Secondly, complying with his request is the law and thirdly, such information shouldn’t be impossible to gather. Shouldn’t the city know how much it is paying its attorney? Shouldn’t the amount be tracked in a line item? Months later and $4 shy of $1,200, Webb is no closer to the answer than he was when he made the inquiry.

To test the system of Norcross and other Gwinnett municipalities, Townsend was instructed to contact each city to see if other jurisdictions could put their hands on such information. Some did so within 24 hours. Some wanted a little more information than the law allows. Anyone can ask for such records without offering any explanation for doing so.

Oddly, the Post got the Norcross information Webb is still waiting on. According to records provided Townsend, in 2001 Norcross paid its attorney $87,968; in 2002 — $124,128 and in 2003, attorney fees for Norcross were $66,865. So Townsend’s work begged another question. Does a reporter have better odds at getting a taxpayer-funded entity to follow the law than an “Average Joe?”

To answer that question, we asked each of our staff reporters to file an open records request of someone on their respective beats. We asked for expense reports for 2004 for officials ranging from Sheriff Butch Conway to Department of Family and Children’s Services Director Lisa Lariscy. We also employed the help of another Post correspondent, Bettina Benoit Durant, to play the role of “Average Joe.” Would Durant have more red tape to cut through than, say, Cops and Courts Reporter Andria Simmons?

Those who found open records requests in their mailbox are familiar with our reporters. But they’d never heard of Durant. Some called asking what we were up to. By law, it was none of their business. Reporters were advised to respond that we were working on a project and that they should comply as they would any open records request.

The results of our project appear in today’s edition of the Gwinnett Daily Post. You’ll also find a primer on the Georgia Sunshine Law. You might be surprised to discover what you’re entitled to as a resident. You don’t have to be a homeowner, a taxpayer or a reporter if, for instance, you want to get a look at e-mails sent to and from someone working a taxpayer-funded job. You don’t have to give an explanation of why you want the information. You don’t even have to provide your name. You can attend any governmental meeting, except those in which litigation, hiring, firing or discipline are being discussed (an executive session), and you should have access to an agenda for a meeting 24 hours before it’s held.

Sunshine Laws are meant to shine light on public officials who answer to the people. They guarantee that the people’s government remains responsive to the people.They protect the public’s right to know.

Public officials’ obligation is to serve the people and if this service is the gathering and delivering of information, they should perform willingly, quickly and completely.

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