Metro Atlanta governments fail test to provide public records

(Originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Metro Atlanta governments do a poor job fulfilling requests for public information, a Georgia News Lab investigation has found.

Citizens rely on Georgia’s open records law to get information about their children’s schools, get records about zoning disputes and figures about how their elected officials spend tax money.

But dozens of local Atlanta agencies didn’t comply with the state law when the News Lab, a student-led collaboration with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, sent requests for basic information.

Student journalists sent public records requests to 148 local governments and police agencies in 13 metro counties and found that:

  • A third did not meet the state law’s requirement for a response within three business days;
  • A quarter only complied with the law after two or three phone calls or follow-up emails;
  • Nineteen agencies, or roughly 13 percent, took more than 20 business days to provide the requested records — and four never provided them at all.

William Perry, president of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, an advocacy group, said the findings reveal a “broken system” that harms the public’s perception of government.

“If you’re not complying with the law, it does indeed seem like you’re hiding something,” he said. “Bottom line is that they are government documents paid for by the taxpayers and they should be available to those taxpayers.”

Students requested use of force policies, which detail how police officers can use weapons, from 75 police and sheriff’s departments, and payroll records from 73 local governments. Both types of records are considered public under the law and are normally simple to produce.

Indeed, several agencies had little difficulty with the requests. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office sent its use of force policy 18 minutes after receiving the News Lab’s request — on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The Newnan Police Department and Lake City complied within an hour. Other agencies responded within one business day.

Lt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office said the Sheriff puts a premium on compliance because it can help build trust between the government and citizens.

“If we hide and don’t provide the information that is requested by the media or by citizens, then they’re no longer going to trust us,” said Baker, the public information officer. “We already have trust issues as it is.”

But some of Atlanta’s largest agencies, including sheriff’s offices in both Cobb and DeKalb counties, took months to comply and only did so after repeated prodding.

Lt. Col. Robert Quigley, a spokesman for the Cobb sheriff’s office, said his agency fields 250 public requests a month and that the News Lab request “clearly fell through the cracks.”

How good is your local government in providing public records?
The Georgia News Lab sent requests for personnel records to cities and counties in metro Atlanta, and for use of force records from city and county police and sheriff’s departments. The chart below shows how long it took for each jurisdiction to comply. Georgia law requires a response within three business days.
Acworth 3 business days
Acworth Police 3 business days
Alpharetta 1 business day
Alpharetta Police 1 business day
Atlanta 54 business days
Atlanta Police Open Records Division 50 business days
Atlanta Police Public Affairs Never
Auburn 4 business days
Auburn Police 2 business days
Austell Never
Austell Police 52 business days
Avondale Estates 2 business days
Avondale Estates Police 12 business days
Berkeley Lake 13 minutes
Berkeley Lake Marshal N/A 1
Braselton 3 business days
Braselton Police 5 business days
Brookhaven 2 business days
Brookhaven Police 6 business days
Buford 2 business days
Buford Public Safety Department N/A 1
Canton 7 business days
Canton Police 7 business days
Carroll County 3 business days
Carroll County Sheriff 2 business days
Carrollton 1 business day
Carrollton Police 6 business days
Chamblee 21 business days
Chamblee Police 20 business days
Chattahoochee Hills 6 business days
Chattahoochee Hills Police 2 business days
Cherokee County 1 business day
Cherokee County Sheriff 18 minutes
Clarkston 2 business days
Clarkston Police 46 business days
Clayton County 6 business days
Clayton County Police 26 business days
Clayton County Sheriff 3 business days
Cobb County 4 business days
Cobb County Police 2 business days
Cobb County Sheriff 54 business days
College Park 52 minutes
College Park Police 1 business day
Coweta County 1 business day
Coweta County Sheriff 1 business day
Cumming 3 business days
Cumming Police 1 business day
Dacula 2 business days
Dacula Marshal 0 business days
Dallas 60 minutes
Dallas Police 1 business day
Decatur Never
Decatur Police 4 business days
Dekalb County 7 business days
Dekalb County Police 1 business day
Dekalb County Sheriff 54 business days
Doraville 4 business days
Doraville Police 3 business days
Douglas County 1 business day
Douglas County Sheriff 1 business day
Douglasville 2 business days
Douglasville Police 1 business day
Duluth 1 business day
Duluth Police 1 business day
Dunwoody 2 business days
Dunwoody Police 19 business days
East Point 11 business days
East Point Police 5 business days
Fairburn 8 business days
Fairburn Police 8 business days
Fayette County 3 business days
Fayette County Sheriff 1 business day
Fayetteville 1 business day
Fayetteville Police 1 business day
Forest Park 3 business days
Forest Park Police 9 business days
Forsyth County 1 business day
Forsyth County Sheriff 4 business days 4
Fulton County 55 business days
Fulton County Police 97 minutes
Fulton County Sheriff 20 business days
Grayson 4 business days
Gwinnett County 3 business days
Gwinnett Police 9 business days
Gwinnett Sheriff 20 business days
Hapeville 28 business days
Hapeville Police 51 business days
Henry County 2 business days
Henry County Police 83 minutes
Henry County Sheriff 3 business days
Johns Creek 4 business days
Johns Creek Police 3 business days
Jonesboro 62 business days
Jonesboro Police 2 business days
Kennesaw 26 business days
Kennesaw Police 19 business days
Lake City 60 minutes
Lake City Police 1 business day
Lawrenceville 3 business days
Lawrenceville Police 3 business days
Lilburn N/A 3
Lilburn Police 2 business days
Lithonia Never
Lithonia Police N/A 2
Loganville 1 business day
Loganville Police 2 business days
Lovejoy 9 business days
Lovejoy Police 9 business days
Marietta 1 business day
Marietta Police 6 business days
McDonough 20 business days
McDonough Police 15 business days
Milton 1 business day
Milton Police 1 business day
Morrow Never
Morrow Police 4 business days
Mountain Park 1 business day
Mountain Park Police 6 business days
Newnan 1 business day
Newnan Police 24 minutes
Norcross 20 business days
Norcross Police 13 business days
Palmetto 27 business days
Palmetto Police 1 business day
Paulding County 4 business days
Paulding County Sheriff 1 business day
Peachtree Corners 1 business day
Pine Lake 3 business days
Pine Lake Police 5 business days
Powder Springs 5 business days
Powder Springs Police 5 business days
Rest Haven 4 business days
Riverdale 6 business days
Riverdale Police 2 business days
Roswell 1 business day
Roswell Police 6 business days
Sandy Springs 4 business days
Sandy Springs Police 24 business days
Smyrna 1 business day
Smyrna Police 3 business days
Snellville 1 business day
Snellville Police 2 business days
Stone Mountain 19 business days
Stone Mountain Police 46 business days
Sugar Hill 18 minutes
Suwanee 1 business day
Suwanee Police 2 business days
Union City 2 business days
Union City Police 12 business days
Source: Georgia News Lab

1: Agency does not provide police protection.
2: Agency does not have a use of force policy.
3: Agency estimated cost within three days; GNL chose not to accept the estimate for records.

“Once it did, it was mismanaged through the process,” he said. “It looks like we had one employee who made a mistake, and then that mistake just kept kind of repeating itself as it went forward, and next thing you know, we’re the last group in metro Atlanta responding to an open records request.”

Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren was “irritated” and “embarrassed” by his agency’s lapse, Quigley said.

“We’re working to put in place some ways to prevent this from happening again in the future,” he said.

Uncooperative, unhelpful employees

Reasons for not producing records ran the gamut, from claims that requests were never received to officials who didn’t return emails or phone calls.

In Jonesboro, follow-up calls to the city administrator — the city’s designated records officer — didn’t go through, and messages could only be left by connecting to the administrator’s voice mail through another employee. The calls were not returned.

Channel 2 Action News later called and left a message. That call too went unreturned, until Channel 2 started calling City Council members. When Channel 2 eventually heard from the clerk, he claimed never to have received the open records request or any messages. Shortly afterward, Jonesboro sent the payroll records, nearly three months after reporters had requested them, and blamed a computer malfunction for the delay.

“I am big on ensuring that all of our operations are transparent to the fullest extent,” the clerk wrote in a cover note accompanying the records. “These types of requests for salary information are received in our office often; hence, we keep a database current and up to date so that when these requests come in they are handled expeditiously.”

Channel 2 arranged to interview the clerk about the delay in providing records at his office in Jonesboro, but he did not show up.

At the Clayton County Police Department, the News Lab request was caught in a spam filter. The contact phone number wouldn’t accept messages. And when reporters finally reached an employee, they were told the records officer had retired. Reporters later learned that the employee had in fact retired — three weeks after the request was submitted.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Capt. Kyle Stevens with Clayton PD, the department’s new records officer.

Confusion about the law, unreasonable fees

News Lab reporters also discovered employees responsible for fulfilling the records requests who were unfamiliar with the legal requirements of providing them.

The city of Morrow said they could not provide payroll records because a third-party vendor handled payroll and the city had “no responsive documents.” Outsourcing work to a third-party is not a valid reason to deny records under Georgia law.

Some delays defied logic. DeKalb County Police responded to an emailed request for the department’s use of force policy with a letter sent through the U.S. postal service. But the letter did not contain the requested policy. Instead, it referred the reporter to the department’s website where it said the policy could be located.

In a follow up call, the department’s records officer told the reporter he’d been directed to the website to avoid having to charge him for printing out the policy. The officer also said responses have to be provided on paper for the department’s record keeping purposes.

Some agencies provided records quickly and free of charge, while others sought fees of more than $50. The city of Fayetteville estimated that it might cost $430 to allow reporters to access payroll records that it said could not be provided electronically. Copying the records would incur additional fees. Other agencies sought lower fees but required money orders sent by mail for sums as small as 60 cents.

Carolyn Carlson, Assistant Director of the Journalism and Emerging Media program at Kennesaw State University, said large fee requests by agencies can be a negotiation tactic.

“Sometimes, when they give you a large amount, (it’s) because they want you to narrow your request,” said Carlson, who led audits of open record law compliance in 2008 and 2010.

In other cases, Carlson said, when they ask for a lot of money, “usually they’re just trying to get rid of you.”

“There’s not a whole lot you can do if they decide to charge you a lot,” she said.

What’s a citizen to do?

Carlson also said that compliance with open records requests has worsened since many records became digitized.

“Back when they had paper records, it was pretty easy to get crime incident reports, for instance,” she said. “But since they put it on computers, frankly their computer systems don’t make it easy to get to them. So instead of them automatically giving them to you when you ask for them, they have to open it up and redact information that’s not supposed to be made public and then give it to you, and it’s a pain in the neck for them to do that and so many of them will just say, ‘No, we’re not going to get it to you.’”

Hollie Manheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which educates officials and the public about government transparency in Georgia, said the state’s laws are generally strong, compared to the rest of the country.

“But there’s no enforcement mechanisms,” Manheimer said, “and that’s been a consistent problem since I started this work 21 years ago.”

Under the law, Georgia citizens who are stymied by agencies that refuse or delay the release of records, or charge excessive fees, can file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office.

Stefan Ritter, a former Senior Assistant Attorney General who headed the program that oversees open records law compliance, says that a lack of funding for the enforcement by the Attorney General’s office limits the law’s effectiveness.

“The AG’s office is a very small office, extremely underfunded, it needs more money to be able to do everything it might do,” said Ritter, who now heads the state ethics commission.

Carlson of KSU says the key to better compliance is ensuring agency employees know the law. “The biggest thing we can do right now is improve training and not just for department directors but for their employees as well,” she said.

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