Sunshine Laws apply to state officials’ open meetings training, too

Parents, teachers and students have an interest in knowing what the state board of education is up to when they gather, which was not possible after officials closed its September meeting. Getty images.

The Georgia Department of Education board is set to get together Nov. 7, and this time around the public can expect compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act.

That might sound like a low bar to clear for a department with the largest budget of any state agency.

Parents, teachers, students — indeed, every Georgia citizen — has an obvious interest in knowing what the policy-setting state education board is doing when a quorum of its members gather.

Over our reporter’s objections, a Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent said most of the September board meeting was closed. The photo shows a conference room at the department’s headquarters. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Despite that, the department’s Deputy Superintendent for Policy, Flexibility, and External Affairs Tiffany Taylor told a Georgia Recorder journalist to leave the board’s Sept. 25 meeting shortly before Gov. Brian Kemp arrived.

Over our reporter’s objections, the deputy superintendent said the meeting was closed. The reason for secrecy? The public officials were about to get trained in how they should approach transparency and open meetings. Really.

As a journalist, I’ve covered a lot of government meetings and requested a lot of public records—and had some push back on both.

As a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, I’ve heard a lot of stories about public officials or agencies falling short of the transparency required by Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. Most of the time, the reason a meeting is improperly closed or a record is wrongly withheld can be chalked up to a misunderstanding of the law.

That appears to be what happened in September, when state education department officials misinterpreted a caveat in state law that allows a quorum to get together behind closed doors for a specialized training among peers.

In the course of coordinating the foundation’s training and outreach efforts this year, I attended open government courses provided by the Georgia Municipal Association. The local elected officials were taking part in statewide, multi-jurisdictional training that under Georgia law is one of the rare times they can sit with a quorum of their colleagues without state law defining it as a meeting.

By comparison, the state Board of Education members represented a single jurisdiction – the state of Georgia. The agenda for the meeting makes it clear that the transparency training should have been open.

When I wrote an email complaining that the Department of Education board improperly closed its training session, I got back a very professional mea culpa from the interim general counsel for the department.

Nonetheless, the underlying problem is real. Whether public officials are willfully flouting the law, as the City of Atlanta is accused of doing, or they just haven’t done enough to understand the laws protecting the public’s right to know, the result is the same.

The public is being blocked from access to the information, meetings and proceedings that belong to them. Public officials must shift their thinking from assuming it’s OK to block public access to assuming it’s not OK to close meetings, withhold records and close courtrooms.

State agencies have the Office of the Attorney General available to help them understand and abide by Georgia’s Sunshine Laws. County and city officials usually have an attorney who’s paid with taxpayer dollars to help local officials learn and follow open records and open meetings laws. Georgia’s city and county associations offer open government training. And the Georgia First Amendment Foundation offers free training to public officials and citizens statewide about the ins and outs of transparency laws. So, really, public officials shouldn’t be making mistakes when it comes to public access to the public’s business.

In his letter, the state Department of Education attorney explained the department’s mistake. But he did not answer a fundamental question that we at the Georgia Recorder repeatedly asked: Even if you could legally close a board training session on transparency, why in the world would you?

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John McCosh
John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.