To FOI Advocates, the Georgia Governor Is a Real Peach

Article excerpt

To take maximum advantage of a political honeymoon, newly elected governors typically send the state legislature a laundry list of pet projects and, perhaps, a distasteful task or two, like a tax increase.

When Democrat Roy Barnes was inaugurated as Georgia's 80th governor last January, he sent just one measure to the General Assembly: a package of proposals to strengthen the state's "Sunshine Law."

"Listen, I've been down at the legislature for 24 years, and I know how it works. They swap votes all the time," says the 51-year-old Barnes. "They'll say, 'Well, you give Roy what he wants on the highway, which you gotta support anyway, and he can't be so mad at you if you don't go along on this thing.' So we just wouldn't introduce anything else except this so they could not swap votes."

When the debates ended and the votes were counted, Georgia had considerably tougher Open Meetings and Open Records Acts and Georgia advocates of open government were ecstatic.

"Roy Barnes did more in the past legislative session to strengthen the Open Records/Open Meetings legislation than anyone had done in a decade, in fact, since Roy Barnes was in the legislature writing the bills," says Hyde Post, assistant managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Barnes is not the only top Georgia official enthusiastic about FOI issues. State attorney general Thurbert E. Baker and his deputy, Dennis Dunn, are frequently praised by journalists for their speed in deciding open-records disputes.

When the National FOI Coalition met in Atlanta in late May, Baker made a point of attending its opening reception and introducing himself to Journal-Constitution editor Ron Martin. "We depend on you to tell us about the glitches," he told Martin. "We have people who are really interested in openness."

When the new Open Records Act takes effect July 1, it will tighten time limits, requiring public bodies to produce a requested document within three days. More than a decade ago, Barnes wrote the original language requiring a "response" within three days and says he watched in frustration as officials interpreted that to mean they could just acknowledge they received the request and continue to sit on the document. …