Superior Court Judge Jesse Stone’s recent ruling in The Augusta Press et.al v. The City of Augusta affirmed that the public’s right to access public records trumps the government’s occasional desire to operate in secret.
It is common for local governments to look for every loophole and exemption regarding the Georgia Open Records Act to deny the press (and therefore, the public) access to information they deem “sensitive.” Consider what has transpired in Augusta.
Last December, the city’s embattled fire chief Chris James finally threw in the towel and retired. The city immediately began the recruitment process behind closed doors and it was clear from the outset that some Augusta commissioners had a candidate picked out before the recruitment firm leading the search had even delivered its findings.
Interviews with four candidates out of the wider pool were hastily scheduled with some commissioners only given 24 hours notice.
Upon hearing of the scheduled interviews, Augusta media outlets immediately sent in Georgia Open Records Act requests to review the applications of four “best qualified” candidates. The law demands that governments across the state respond to open records requests within three days. In this case, Augusta officials apparently deemed that three-day window rule as more of a guideline or suggestion and promptly ignored the requests.
When pressed on the matter, the city attorney announced the name of a finalist, current DeKalb County Deputy Fire Chief Antonio Burden. However, the attorney only announced a name and did not produce a resume or even a picture of the “finalist.” The city attorney also steadfastly refused to release the names of the other three candidates interviewed.
We at The Augusta Press felt we had only two options: we could walk away with our tails tucked between our legs or we could force the city into court.
Within hours of the suit being filed, our colleagues (and competitors) at The Augusta Chronicle newspaper and television stations WRDW and WJBF asked to join the suit.
Even with virtually the entire Augusta media involved, this was still a David versus Goliath fight as private businesses have limited budgets and governments have a seemingly bottomless taxpayer piggy bank to pull from.
Plaintiff’s attorney David Hudson outlined the requirements of the Open Records Act and provided evidence that the city violated the act numerous times. Hudson argued that by rigging the selection process and ignoring the law, the city had deprived the public of its First Amendment right to redress grievances to the government. After all, if the media cannot obtain information covered by law, then no one else in the public can request and obtain that information either.
“If the public cannot access information on the government’s activities, how would they know that they might have a grievance that needs to be addressed?” Hudson asked the court.
The attorney for the city, Samuel Meller, openly admitted that the city violated the law or at least the spirit of the law and he argued that confidentiality meant to protect the applicants being recruited outweighed the public’s right to what is deemed “sensitive information.”
Meller made his case to the court that if people’s names could be released publicly, then far fewer qualified candidates would apply for fear of their current employer finding out that they were seeking other employment.
Judge Stone was visibly unimpressed with the city attorney’s argument and issued an injunction that demanded the city comply with the original requests within three days and then wait 14 more days before voting on a finalist.
Two days later, the city asked for another hearing, where the city attorney gamely attempted to persuade the judge to change his mind and let the city proceed.
The last-minute ploy didn’t work and the city was cornered. It was either comply with the order, file an appeal or face contempt. So city leaders wisely decided to comply with the order.
Once the records were released, the public soon learned that the almost-crowned fire chief finalist Burden paled in comparison to the other three candidates interviewed– and would likely bring his personal burdens from DeKalb County to Augusta.
It was discovered that Burden was suspended from his job as deputy fire chief in DeKalb for five days after his county-owned vehicle was spotted parked at a liquor store. In court, Burden has previously been sued for contempt once for not paying a credit card judgement and again for not paying his alimony.
Indeed, it is rare for media companies to sue local governments on behalf of the public. That’s because the majority of government agencies follow the law, or at least don’t violate it in such a brazen manner. However, when such an issue does arise, it is the responsibility of the media to fight for the public’s right to know.
Scott Hudson is the managing editor and editorial page editor of The Augusta Press.