The following article is an editorialized opinion piece and reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.
I wrote an article a year and a half ago titled “The Agony of Open Records Requests.” It was inspired by ‘Toni with an i,’ who was the Board of Education attorney for the Ben Hill County School district and detailed the ridiculous games that are played during the process of trying to get open records. She made my life a living hell for the duration of my open records process – she blocked my email address while we were in the middle of a records dispute and sent 100 pages of ‘evidence’ in reply to my complaint to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office. The elected body to which she serves at the pleasure of never commented, never acted, and never acknowledged anything occured. Eventually I got my records, but the experience was eye-opening. After a full three years ‘on the job,’ I still can’t say ‘I’ve seen it all’ because even though it’s usually just the same cookie cutter problem with a different face, I continually face new hurdles.
I love my job and my passion is rooted firmly in open-government, transparency, and accountability, so I have no qualms about trying to jump those hurdles. But there’s a gross misunderstanding about how an investigation coagulates.
To be clear, I don’t pick on a town – I don’t even pick the town. Every story starts with a phone call or a message on social media ‘tipping me off’ to something going on in a community. Tips are always between me and the tipster. I receive, on average, three tips a day in communities around our state. Not all of them are valid or newsworthy, sometimes they’re personal grudges, or even just a misunderstanding. Other times, the tips are ballpark home runs on government overreach and abuse.
As it becomes known that I’m looking into an area, more related information on the community begins to roll in. Some are public, others are private, and then a few are anonymous, but my folder of details accumulates before I even attempt to get information from a community. Everything is relevant, even if it isn’t newsworthy.
There’s often talk about why an investigative story ends up being about one person or a few people elected or employed with an entity. People ask, “Why does there have to be a villain?”
But I don’t decide that there is a villain. I don’t even pick who the villain is. The villain is self-declared.
That’s because there is someone, in every single story, who makes the decision that they’re going to make the process difficult. Someone makes a concerted effort to inflate the cost of records, to extend the fulfillment period, and to move the target whenever possible. There is someone who decides that, even though they know exactly what is being requested, a technicality to avoid fulfillment exists and they’ll avoid any further request until the exact verbiage is offered. It happens almost every time, but I don’t make the decision to go that route. My job would be tremendously easier if it did not.
What happens next is that the now self-declared villain gives me and the community the perception that there is something to hide because, instead of making an effort to find common ground on what was requested and what can be provided, a proverbial hand is placed in the face of transparency. As the self-declared villain makes the rounds in the community to bad mouth the requestor, the perception of guilt or wrongdoing only intensifies. The villain questions the intentions of the person requesting documents and shifts the focus on the actual documents to the integrity of the open government advocate. This does not help the case of the villain. As a last ditch effort, the villain attempts to play the victim while members of the community begin to publicly vocalize wrongdoing they’ve seen, too, which is seen as tacking on.
But most everyone else on the sidelines can see that these things are not personal. I have not tried to ‘take down’ someone I hated or get someone fired because I personally thought they were a bad person. We’re talking about people who are elected by voters and others who are compensated by tax dollars. Everything they do is public record and the business of those in the community – and the state, given that state funds flow to the local level. When wrongdoing occurs, it should be made known. If good things happen, it should be public. If questions simply arise, they should be answered.
I don’t have to tell people when something is amiss. They can see it for themselves when the information is presented.
My job is not to be anything other than the person who obtains the records and puts the records out for the public to review. If a local government entity is stalling or refusing to comply or provides an outrageous response, that is newsworthy and public information. The law is clear and transparency is supposed to err on the side of the requestor. When it doesn’t, the public should know. Occasionally, I will editorialize the story and offer an opinion piece, but never without full disclosure. If I offer an opinion piece, I try to explain why.
I’m no expert, but I’ve been doing this a while now and the number of places who sit in a stature of an open book (looking at you Bulloch County Schools and City of Glennville) are far outweighed by those who don’t. Whether the work is done in Reidsville, Claxton, Oak Park, Brooklet, Ben Hill County, Valdosta State University, Chattooga County, or the Evans County School System, it all begins the same way.
But luckily for The People, it almost always ends the same way, too.
Truth perseveres. Persistence wins. At some point, transparency sees a victory –even if it takes a while. And all of that is a loss for the villain.