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Cumming position threatens sunshine

Here’s an interesting defense: A public official claiming he cannot be fined for breaking Georgia’s Sunshine Laws because he is a public official and was acting in his capacity as a public official when the alleged violation occurred.

The 2012 General Assembly passed a new Open Meetings and Open Records Law, which went into effect on April 17, the very day that Nydia Tisdale, a blogger from Forsyth County, was barred by Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt and police from videotaping a City Council meeting. We understand from news reports that in May the Cumming City Council began allowing the recording of its meetings with some rules, such as not having cameras mounted on tripods in aisles.

Under Georgia’s Open Meetings Law, those who attend city government meetings are entitled to record sound and pictures of the meetings. If the law is violated, the attorney general of the state is authorized to sue violators and to seek penalties against them.

That is what Attorney General Sam Olens’ office did in respect to the Cumming City Council’s April 17 meeting. The office alleged two counts of Sunshine Law violations and asked the court to impose the maximum civil penalties allowed — $1,000 for the first one and $2,500 for subsequent violations.

Rather than admit its mistake, the city of Cumming has tried to outflank the public and Legislature by claiming immunity under Georgia’s sovereign immunity doctrine. In its response last month to the attorney general’s action, the city of Cumming is claiming that Gravitt is off the hook for any repercussions because he was presiding over the meeting as mayor.

The city’s position is that the mayor is protected because House Bill 397, the enabling legislation, did not specifically state that public officials who violate the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws are stripped of this immunity.

What follows this line of reasoning is this: A public official is free to violate the right of the public to access what’s going on with its local government by curtailing whatever news gathering means he or she doesn’t like with impunity, simply because he or she is acting as a public official.

Frankly, that logic is befuddling and troubling.

Clearly, the Legislature meant for local governments to abide by behaviors that facilitate good government. That means open government. Had it not intended for violators of the law to be held accountable, it would not have included the penalties.

Any other interpretation would be a serious setback to open government, and would open the door for elected officials who don’t have the public’s best interests at heart to hide what they will, secure in the cloak of darkness.