Citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale is no stranger to attempts by government officials to avoid public scrutiny. In 2014 she was arrested for filming a campaign event. But that was not the first time Tisdale had run afoul of camera-shy politicians.
Tisdale became interested in government transparency when she worked for a property management company in 2008. A landfill was proposed adjacent to one of her company’s properties, and she was assigned to attend the zoning meetings. The application was eventually withdrawn, but while reading the documents and comparing them to the legal requirements for rezoning applications, Tisdale discovered multiple deficiencies in the application that the officials handling the request had not uncovered. She said the government had failed in its legal obligation to perform due diligence.
After that experience, Tisdale began regularly recording local government meetings.
Asked if she had ever been denied the right to record a public meeting, she said “That’s happened to me half a dozen different times. There was a previous incident at Cumming City Hall, where the mayor who had been in office over 40 years, Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, instructed for the chief of police, Casey Tatum, to remove my camera, during an open public meeting. He had already struck the gavel and was commencing the meeting. I protested loudly that I was exercising my right to video-record an open and public meeting, and notified the mayor and everyone in the room that they were violating Georgia state sunshine law. And his response was ‘it’s not up for discussion, remove the camera’ ”
That evening she filed a complaint with the state attorney general, and two days later the City of Cumming received a letter from the state instructing it to comply with the law.
Tisdale said “The Georgia general assembly provides for all citizens to have access to their government via open records and open meetings. And those rights aren’t just reserved for media. A lot of citizens don’t access those rights, and may not be aware of those rights, but the state attorney general’s office has gone to great lengths to make sure that those rights are honored, and they offer a governmental mediation program. If a citizen has difficulty obtaining a record or access to a meeting one may file a complaint online. Often, they will consult with the governmental agency to find out what the problem is, and offer guidance so that citizens can get their requests fulfilled.”
Georgia has laws to prevent government bodies and contractors and who work for the government from carrying out their activities in secret. Those laws apply not only to reporters, but to any citizen of Georgia. The Open Records Act ensures access to documents, and the Open Meetings Act requires that meetings, with few exceptions, are open to the public. Any citizen can request documents or attend and record legislative meetings, hearings, and other public meetings.
To comply with this requirement many local governments and agencies have added specialized staff to process open records requests. In an email, Carla Lario, the Open Records Duty Officer in the Cobb County attorney’s office, wrote “The County Attorney’s Office took over as the official records custodian for 22 of the county departments in 2015. Previously, they had been channeled through Communications. In 2016, we handled approximately 530 requests. Keep in mind, this doesn’t include the 1400 per month received by Cobb County Police Records or the 250+ the Sheriff’s Office gets on a monthly basis as well. Additionally, the courts and the Tax Commissioner’s Office handle their own records requests.”
Holly Manheimer has been the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation for 21 years. GFAF is a nonprofit organization that advocates for openness in government. “It’s the citizen’s way to monitor its own government. It’s the mechanism by which we can watch our government,” she said when asked why the open government laws were important.
The GFAF worked with Georgia’s then-Attorney General Sam Olens to improve Georgia’s open records and open meeting laws in 2012. According to the GFAF website, the changes included “increased penalties for violators, reduced costs for copying records and improved access to electronic records.” They also collaborated with the attorney general’s office, and law enforcement officials, to publish guides to using the laws, known as the “Red Book”, “Blue Book”, and “Green Book”. The Red Book is a citizen’s guide to the open records and open meeting laws, the Blue Book explains the requirements of law enforcement agencies, and the Green Book outlines public access to records in the education system.
“These laws are so important, and a lot of times citizens are using them, and they don’t even know it. For example, when you go to get your accident report if you’re in a car wreck, you’re using the open government laws,” Manheimer said.