Byline: JAKE ARMSTRONG
ATLANTA - The public's right to government records could shrink or expand depending on the outcome of five bills vying for lawmakers' approval this session.
While one measure would allow judges to keep the public from seeing sexually explicit evidence in criminal trials (a response to a notorious teen sex case), another would raise the bar legislators must clear to keep records from the public eye.
Just two weeks ago, contractors' bids and contracts with development authorities - documents the public has a right to view - seemed headed toward secrecy under House Bill 1200, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
However, the House State Planning & Community Affairs Committee tabled the bill and a motion to revive it failed this week.
In keeping with the failure of that bill, advocates of public access say that Georgia's Open Records Act has gained strength over the past 15 years.
But that's not to say practice always follows the intent of the law, said Atlanta-based real estate attorney Matt Mashburn, a frequent user of the act.
Though legislation has sought to aid access, keepers of government records have increasingly taken a broader view of what records are exempt from the act, Mashburn said.
"Now the pendulum in the past couple of years has started swinging the other way," Mashburn said. "They haven't clamped down, but there has been a subtle trend toward expanding these exemptions."
Making it harder to create an exemption is at the heart of Senate Resolution 970, which resides in the hands of the Senate Ethics Committee.
S.R. 970 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require any new exemption to the Open Record Act to get a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, a so-called supermajority that now is reserved for proposed constitutional amendments.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. David Adelman, D-Atlanta, said the number of exemptions already in the act leaves it riddled with holes.
For example, records of farm water use are exempt, and they are documents the public or news media might want to view in times of water restrictions.
"Transparency in government is what protects our democracy. It should be very hard for the General Assembly to create exceptions to our open records and open meetings laws," Adelman said.
But Mashburn called the supermajority legislation too cumbersome, adding that it would enable a small minority of recalcitrant lawmakers to block an exemption that may be worthwhile. …