Court brightens Sunshine Law

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court in a 4-3 vote put a brighter light in Georgia's Sunshine Laws.

In a partial reversal of an Appeals Court ruling in a case involving the Atlanta City Council, the high court issued a ruling that makes it harder for elected officials to hide their votes from their constituents.

The genesis of the case was a 2010 vote the Atlanta Council took during a retreat it conducted at the Georgia Aquarium. In a show of hands, the council voted 8-7 against amending its rules regarding public comment at its committee meetings. Matthew Cardinale, editor of the Atlanta Progressive News, got a copy of the council minutes and asked for the vote tally showing how each council member voted.

He was unable to get a breakdown of how each council member voted.

Cardinale, representing himself, filed a complaint in Fulton County Superior Court, arguing that under Georgia's Open Meetings Act he had a right to obtain that information. At issue was this portion of the law:

"In the case of a roll-call vote, the name of each person voting for or against a proposal shall be recorded, and in all other cases, it shall be presumed that the action taken was approved by each person in attendance unless the minutes reflect the name of the persons voting against the proposal or abstaining."

Cardinale wanted a declaration that the council acted illegally and that individual defendants be charged a $500 fine for violating the law, but the trial court sided with the city's motion to dismiss the complaint, saying the law does not require a detailed accounting of how members vote. That ruling was upheld by the state Appeals Court.

The high court upheld that a private citizen couldn't prosecute that council. The majority of the Supreme Court, however, saw things differently on compliance with the Open Meetings Act. The law, the majority said, "was enacted in the public interest to protect the public -- both individuals and the public generally -- from 'closed door' politics and the potential abuse of individuals and the misuse of power. While the Act provides for public access to agency meetings, it also fosters openness by, among other things, requiring agencies to generate meeting minutes that are open to public inspection so that members of the public unable to attend a meeting nonetheless may learn what occurred."

The high court said that adopting the position a government agency has the discretion to not record the names of those voting against a proposal in a non-roll-call vote "conflicts with the Act's goal of greater governmental transparency" and would lead to "unreasonable results. We cannot conclude that the General Assembly intended to require members of the public to presume, incorrectly, that a non-unanimous, non-roll-call vote was, in fact, unanimous ... even if some members of the public know from attending the meeting ... that the vote was split."

Over the years, there have been numerous occasions at government meetings when it has been nearly impossible for reporters to tell who voted which way on issues, especially when those elected officials were dealing with something politically risky. There have been times when even the recording clerk had no idea which way a particular official voted, and when officials who timidly offered their votes to escape attention have called and argued that their votes were listed incorrectly in stories.

The bottom line is that constituents have a right to know exactly how their representatives vote on any issue that comes before the agency, and it's ridiculous to report that a vote was unanimous when everyone in the room when the vote was taken knows that is incorrect. Not accounting for each official's vote also opens the door for government shenanigans that we can all do without.

Attorney General Sam Olens, who filed an amicus curae in support of Cadinale, said, "By ruling in favor of Mr. Cardinale, the Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the legislative intent of Georgia's sunshine laws, which is to protect and promote citizens' access to their government, not to serve as a shield from accountability. This ruling set a strong precedent that government should err on the side of openness."

We appreciate that Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justices Hugh Thompson, P. Harris Hines and David Nahmias arrived at a reasoned decision -- one that we believe was both fair and correct -- in favor of open, honest government.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board