Being ‘as unhelpful as possible’ is common with open records requests

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This week, a story about Atlanta City Hall’s response to an open records request last year drew the ire of everyone who wants to see more transparency in government. To recap: WSB filed an open records request relating to water bills for two properties owned by then-mayor Kasim Reed and his brother, Tracy. Newly released records show internal text messages between Jenna Garland, former spokesperson for the mayor and Lillian Govus, former watershed dept. communications manager. According to WSB, In the text messages Garland said “I’d be as unhelpful as possible. Drag this out as long as possible. And provide information in the most confusing format available.”

As jarring as the text is, for reporters, the story is old hat. The text message simply confirms long-held suspicions about the inner-workings of local government. Government communications departments and spokespeople are notorious for obfuscating details that could reflect poorly on their departments. This is why we have open records laws or sunshine laws, because left to their own devices, local governments and public entities would actively mislead the public. Consider the following recent examples:

‘As Unhelpful As Possible’
Back to the watershed story that got everyone’s attention, the city initially missed its March 20th deadline, which prompted WSB to request the water bills for all of Atlanta’s city council members. The city didn’t meet it’s April 10th deadline, and then lawyers had to get involved. The documents were released shortly after legal action was threatened and the city’s hand was forced.

Northside Hospital Goes to Court
A Georgia Supreme Court case last year examined whether or not a public hospital that is operated by a private corporation is subject to open records law. The Fulton County Hospital Authority, the company that operates the hospital, maintained that the hospital, despite being a public hospital, is exempt from open records law. According to the Savannah Morning News this has had implications on requests for open records throughout the entire state.

To be clear, we’re not talking about private records like an individual’s medical records. We are talking about information the public has a right to know, such as the cost of construction of a new wing of the hospital, or how much the CEO earns per year. Since the public has a vested interest in their local health care system, this information is important and in the public interest.

In Savannah, the Morning News reports they have had issues with the parent company of Memorial University Medical Center, which uses the Northside case to deny records requests from the newspaper. The lower court’s ruling in the case allowed hospitals to keep public information out of the public eye.

In the Northside case, the state supreme court overturned the lower court’s ruling, which has been viewed as a win for open records.

Faking it
Earlier this month, the AJC reported that the city of Atlanta responded to its records request by sending fake invoices instead of actual invoices.

The real invoices were kept under another account for another issue, which would conveniently prevent an open records request from uncovering them. This tactic was apparently set up in advance to thwart a future open records request. You can read the full article below, but this example shows the lengths governments will go to in order to keep their activities from public scrutiny.

These are just three recent examples of public entities using the resources and loopholes available to them to keep the public in the dark either entirely or for as long as possible. While the text messages in the water bill instance are somewhat shocking, they are just the tip of a large iceberg.

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