Sunday Solutions – March 19, 2023

Each week we point out events and actions you may want to know about, but it’s not often possible without sunshine, the kind of light that opens to public view the meetings, records and processes of representative government. This transparency is best way to illuminate merits and faults to all. So today we mark Sunshine Week, when media outlets focus on government transparency. For this edition, we shine a beam on real events and examples, plus a few where there’s work to be done.

Setting budget priorities

From data reporter Maggie Lee:

Public records show how Georgia spends its money.  For example, Georgia budgeted more money on prisons this year than on all lottery-funded HOPE higher education scholarships and grants. Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed about the same levels of spending for each for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. You can find all of this on web pages where the governor and the legislature post budget information. But not everything you need is there.

When the state or counties make special grants and allowances to companies, that info isn’t volunteered in glowing press releases, it comes from open record requests and meeting minutes. In December, Georgia officially celebrated 630 jobs that are supposed to be created in Bulloch County at a new Hyundai supplier, AJIN Georgia. But an open record request revealed details of an unmentioned $2.7 million state grant to the company and that the average pay per job will be $21.65 per hour.  In January, when the state announced Hyundai supplier Ecoplastics would build in Bulloch County, nobody mentioned that the company won’t pay county property taxes at all for 10 years, and that the county would knock $2.3 million off the land sale price. But it was all in the meeting minutes, an open record.

Following facts, providing context

From environment reporter Mary Landers:

Public records can verify a source’s story. The Current used a Georgia Open Records Act request to obtain the  incident report and audio recording of a Chatham County 911 call related to shots fired near a kayaker off Little Tybee Island.  The documents confirmed his story and added to concerns that others had expressed about illegal activity on the state-owned heritage preserve. In another recent story, documents requested from the Department of Natural Resources provided a wealth of details about Green Island, which Chatham County is working to buy with the help of grant money from the state. The documents included its recently appraised value, a detail left out of press releases on the state grant.

Open records reveal process gaps

From public safety reporter Jake Shore:

Public records can review a Georgia state employee’s background — something that is essential when they take positions that involve safeguarding lives and livelihoods. The records can also reveal what institutions potentially missed or ignored when hiring someone.

After a Savannah police officer fatally shot a man in Carver Village last June, The Current requested records from the officer’s past job as a prison guard at Coastal State Prison in Garden City. Those records showed a work history marked with use of force violations, reprimands and letters of concern from the warden. The Current presented these records to the Savannah Police Department. The agency discovered it had lapsed in its background check of Ferguson causing those disciplinary records to remain undiscovered when he was hired.

Since then, the department’s chief said the agency has implemented new controls to make sure a background investigator gets all past disciplinary records from an applicant.

empty chairs audience
Credit: Jonas Jacobsson/Unsplash

Your second cup: Your superpower

From managing editor Susan Catron:

As you ponder these examples, remember this: Journalists have the same rights you do. We just use them on the public’s behalf so you don’t have to wait weeks for an open records request. The real power is yours. Simply showing up at meetings can make a difference to public officials, and hearing the debate for yourself is the best way to understand the basis for decisions before a vote. The Current keeps an updated database for you of public meetings and posted agendas throughout Coastal Georgia that you can monitor and attend. You’ll be able to support and, sometimes, demand transparency in person.

Last week, we saw work by vigilant citizens bring the legal arm of the state, the courts and a grand jury to demand accounting for a $12 million expenditure for Spaceport Camden. Their work to force open records is an effort to see how and why the project required so much attention at taxpayer expense. There are more challenges and opportunities ahead.

• The legislature continues to work to cloak information for all 800,000 state, federal and local public employees with SB 215. This would keep you from seeing potential conflicts, whether they meet residency requirements or if they really represent you.

Reporting by Prism finds that Gullah Geechee descendants on Sapelo Island in McIntosh County weren’t told by their elected representative that House Bill 273 would change the makeup of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority board, a move that could open the island to more development and diminish the islanders’ voices about the future.

• In another example of why closely watching legislation matters, a House soapbox derby bill transitioned in a Senate committee to one that legalizes online sports betting. Stay tuned to HB 237, which is now a completely different bill than the one that passed the House. If it makes it through the full Senate, that conference committee meeting will likely be an interesting one.

• And one last thing: Public comment ends Monday for the mining plan for land near the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. It’s another chance, set aside by the state, for you to let decision makers know your thoughts on whether you do or do not favor the proposal.

Open records and open meetings are necessities for our form of government, but it’s all a two-way street. Transparency is your superpower, but it only matters to your elected and appointed representatives if it matters more to you.

Bring the sunshine: Spring begins at 5:24 p.m. Monday.

Attorney General, Grand Jury lean on Camden to release spaceport records

More than a month after the state Supreme Court ruled against Camden, the county still keeps its spaceport documents secret

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Check the agendas for issues and votes so you can show up and let your elected and appointed representatives know what you want.

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Sapelo Island’s Geechee residents worry state Senate bill could disenfranchise them

Rep. Buddy DeLoach said the seat will be given to a resident of the community on Sapelo Island. But according to Bailey, the descendants on the island were not informed of the bill, and Bailey only learned of it through a contact on the Capitol floor.

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Bill to hide elected, other officials’ names, property from public passes 53-0 in Georgia Senate

The bill would require redaction of names and property ownership from state data bases of law enforcement personnel, politicians, and hundreds of thousands of other government officials.

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State Senate committee resurrects Mallow’s sports betting bill

Measure would allow state lottery to oversee online betting, and would allow debit cards only. It would allow betting on pro, college sports but not high school.

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EPD director updates board on mining project near Okefenokee

Mining near the Okefenokee is a hot button issue with the public, but board meeting brought only a brief update and a few questions.

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State House approves bill to limit transgender care for minors as GOP prevails in party-line vote

Republicans pushed the bill through the chamber with a 96-to-75 party-line vote and over the objections of Democrats, transgender Georgians, hundreds of doctors and others who have argued the bill usurps decision-making from parents, impedes the medical community’s ability to serve their patients and threatens the mental wellbeing of those affected.

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