Shining the Light on Government
Honoring those that promote open government
March 15, 2007
Once a year
Sunshine Week comes around. This is a week that Open Government
and those that promote open government are recognized by
the Atlanta Journal as well as newspapers and organizations
around the nation. Being honored as an “Open Government
Hero” last year, I was privileged to attend the luncheon
honoring this year’s heroes.
This year there
were 4 public officials and 4 private citizens honored.
Each opened government in their unique way. The
Public Official Heroes
were honored first and each was given a minute or two to
District Judge Marvin Shoob stressed that very
little should be withheld from the public. He said in all
his years as a judge he had never seen an administration
as bad as the current one (Federal) in withholding information
from the people, and Judge Shoob has been around. He’s 84
years old, and still sharp I might add. "I think the
government has become much more secretive over the last
few years and does not willingly produce records they feel
like may not be in the best interest of government,"
he said. One of his biggest cases involving open records
was Iraqgate —- a scheme in which the Atlanta branch of
Italian bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro funneled $5 billion
to Iraq to finance Saddam Hussein's war machine in the years
before the first Gulf War. Much of the money was in the
form of loans backed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Judge Shoob has received other Freedom of Information Awards
during his career.
Austin Scott (R-Tifton) realized first hand
how frustrating it is not to be able to get documents you
know exist, but the agency will not provide them without
being sued. Rep. Scott filed open records requests with
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany and Tift Regional
Medical Center in Tifton about three years ago, asking for
executive compensation, travel-related expenses and other
financial data. He didn't receive the files he wanted—and
he was a State Representative. I almost laughed out loud
when I heard this, because these same type requests had
been filed with Jasper Memorial /Jasper Health Services/
Oconee Regional Hospital by local citizens, and the Attorney
General’s office had to intervene before documents were
obtained. However, when Rep. Scott sought help from the
Attorney General's office, he didn’t get the help he needed.
He said he realized he would have to file a lawsuit as a
private citizen and the hospitals had much more money than
he did and he’d have to finally say, “Uncle.” He is now
proposing a bill that would let citizens received their
attorney’s fees back from the agency being sued if their
suit prevails. While judges currently have the ability to
award such fees, Scott said it's not done in practice. He
told those attending that this would “put wind under the
wings of citizens fighting to get open records.” It was
enlightening to hear that a State Representative had as
hard of a time getting records as ordinary citizens, but
he has the power to do much more about it—changing and strengthening
Commissioner Angela Speir is the first woman
elected to the Public Service Commission and the second
Republican woman elected to a statewide office. In 2005
she became the first woman to chair the Commission. She
has been advocating openness in the PSC’s dealings with
the big utilities. (To read more about this read Bill Shipp’s
satire in the Monticello News last week.) The utilities
have been used to sending their best lobbyists down to have
secret conversations with commissioners about pending votes;
this practice is only condoned in 2 states—Louisiana and
Georgia. Mrs. Speir thinks its time that stopped and has
repeatedly brought the “exparte” issue to the table. By
shining the light on these dealings she is slowly opening
all the conversations to the public—those of us that pay
those utility and telephone bills. As quoted in the AJC
when interviewed, Mrs. Speir said, “I was raised with a
strong sense of right and wrong," she said. "I
was raised to have a backbone. I know who I believe in.
I believe in God. I serve the Lord first and the people
of Georgia second. I don't mean that to sound cheesy or
trite, but it's so." I found Mrs. Speir to be totally
committed to open government when she attended the ceremonies
last year and was delighted to see she was honored this
Tax Commissioner Katherine Sherrington.
You can thank Katherine Sherrington that you don’t have
to wait in line to get a car tag like you used to 10 years
ago. Her proposal passed the Legislature about 10 years
ago after her endless prodding to stagger sales throughout
the year rather than jamming them into the first three months.
Sherrington has been Gwinnett County's tax commissioner
since 1984. Her real contribution to open government is
the citizen council she formed consisting of business people
and community residents. They meet once a quarter. She said
when people in her office recommended things if she didn’t
really like it, she got her way because she was the boss.
But with the citizens council she had to listen more and
found there were many more improvements she could make.
Between meetings members also get e-mails from the commissioner
asking about an initiative or a proposal. "It's kind
of like getting free consulting," Sherrington said.
"And it's wonderful, because they'll tell me the truth.
They don't dance around things." And I found the best
part was that she really listened and took the citizens
advice! A novel idea!!
Next came the Citizen Heroes. They
are the ones that give up their personal time to “watch”
government dealings—City, County, and State—as well as spend
their own money to pay for records and even lawsuits. The
AJC editor, Julia Wallace asked each Hero a question about
what they had done to earn the award. These are the Heroes
that give others hope and encouragement.
ALMEDIA CRUZ is a Vine City “activist.”
She was hired by the City of Atlanta after the blackwater
flood disaster in 2002. She was an environmental consultant
hired to perform 30 days of work on an assessment of the
damage. After the month was up, they stopped paying, but
Ms.Cruz didn't stop working. She was asked by Ms. Wallace,
“Why after 3 years are you still working on this? What makes
you continue?” Ms. Cruz told all in attendance that this
was worse than Katrina; it was just on a smaller scale.
She said it is terrible and no one will really do anything,
so she has become a one-woman investigative branch, working
free of charge for the people of Vine City and Washington
Park. She believes these people were both ripped off and
subjected to serious health problems. She found how government
funds were wasted. "$6,000 for a new roof that wasn't
there," she said. "$5,000 for a 'channel drain'
that was just a piece of plastic stuck over a mudhole."
"I kept hounding them. I told the people in Washington,
I'm out here doing this for free, on my own time, spending
my own money on these open records. When you have all these
resources available, you are the ones who should be doing
this." Finally HUD had to open up a criminal investigation.
She said she was in her “sixth decade” and now works at
a convenience store to pay her bills and continue working
on the Vine City “project.” She said nobody she works with
knows anything about her “alter life." She was so very
passionate and wants something to be done to help these
people that have been “living in squalor for 3 years.”
GRAVITT is a College Park teacher and has someone
to stand by her side and help her. I could relate to Mrs.
Gravitt and what she does and how she felt because she attends
all College Park City Council meetings and “watches their
every move” as she put it. She works along with her husband.
She has been dubbed "Lady Sunshine" by the people
of College Park, but has been called a "neo-fascist"
by some on the City Council. After 3 years of doing this
she has sifted through officials' travel expense reports,
monitors use of city credit cards, and watches for violations
of open meetings laws and much more. She said what really
bothered her and got her started was when she attended a
City Council meeting some other citizen questioned if the
council could do something. They were told, “This is how
we’ve been doing it and until someone tells us differently,
that’s how we’re going to do it.” Mrs. Gravitt said she
couldn’t believe it, so she’s been attending meetings and
“telling them” what open government laws require. Mrs. Gravitt
also expressed dismay to the AJC and those of us in the
room as to how little the Attorney General’s office would
do. She said, “It would be nice to hear back from them when
you call or write.” (I noticed after the luncheon Sr. Asst.
AG Stefan Ritter made sure he met them and spoke to them.)
The Gravitts found that Councilman Phillips charged the
city $661.08 for meals for himself and his wife during a
five-day Washington trip in 2003. The (now former) city
clerk used her city-issued credit card for personal purchases
on several occasions. Mrs. Gravitt expressed concern that
when these issues were brought up she was called a racist.
Mrs. Gravitt said she would love to get her life back and
be able to miss a council meeting now and then, but “I feel
like they're trying to pull the wool over citizens' eyes.
It's very frightening." The Gravitts have also had
to foot the bills for a lawsuit or two and citizens call
them regularly to help with a variety of City “issues.”
MUHAMMAD is from DeKalb County. Her brother
was shot and killed by a DeKalb County police officer. Ms
Wallace asked her, “After all this, what would you pass
on to your two young sons? What do you think you’ve learned
that they should know?” Her immediate answer was, “Don’t
give up. Keep searching, and you will find the answers you
are looking for.” She said she knew nothing about Open Records,
but taught herself how to get answers. By filing open records
requests for investigative files, internal affairs reports
and findings by the medical examiner, she learned exactly
what happened that day and how her brother died. Then she
tracked down obituaries of people shot by the police, identified
relatives and then contacted funeral homes, asking that
they pass along her contact information to the surviving
families. She started a group whose family members had been
killed by DeKalb Police. "I don't understand why they
won't just turn this information over. Why not just open
the file and copy? Makes you wonder if there is something
wrong. I just wanted to know what happened. Nobody would
answer very simple questions." She is now working to
get a citizens review board with subpoena power that would
examine police shootings in the future.
ABRAMSON is the “activist” fighting the 6 story
parking deck at Piedmont Park that the Atlanta Botanical
Garden wants to build. Ms. Wallace asked him, “Why do you
think that a private entity, such as the Atlanta Botanical
Garden should have to turn records over to you? They are
not a public entity.” (The botanical garden said it wasn't
subject to the Georgia Open Records Act because it is a
private, nonprofit group.) Mr. Abramson has been asking
the garden for two years to supply the soil studies that
underlie the controversial plan to build a parking deck
there. He said he and others of the “Friends of Piedmont
Park” group think they should build an underground garage
beneath its parking lot. He said the issue is whether private
entities that oversee public projects or groups are subject
to the state's open records laws. He elaborated saying,
“As more and more private partnerships are being talked
about with roads, city services, etc. are all records going
to become private?” He said that they are just subcontractors
doing public business and the records should be available
since public funds are used. He said Piedmont Park was a
public park. "I would hate, as a citizen, to allow
the government to be able to easily hide things simply by
going through this type of process." The attorney general's
office has told the Botanical Garden to comply with the
open records request. The runaround, stonewalling and now
"intimidation" Abramson said he's received shows
citizens that the fight for open records can be a time-consuming
process, but "you have to stick with it."
As he left the
podium Ms. Wallace said they (the AJC) might be able to
help him out with some documents they have after their fight
to open up the bids for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and 2009
Super Bowl and documents maintained by the Metro Atlanta
Chamber of Commerce and Central Atlanta Progress (both “private”
Each Hero was given an “Open Government Hero” plaque and
a framed picture depicting an open government political
cartoon by Mike Luckovich. Cynthia McKinney and Jim Wooten
presented the awards.
All the Citizen Heroes are advocates for stronger Open Records
and Meetings laws with some teeth--with some punishment
for those that refuse to provide documents time and time
again. They are all proof that one person can make
a difference. It takes time, money, and the will
to fight for something you believe in, but the Sunshine
is always better than Secrecy. The all believe people have
the right to know what is going on with their tax money.
I was excited to be able to hear these people’s stories
and see the encouragement they were given by elected officials,
AJC staff, the Georgia Press Assoc., past Heroes, and others
in attendance. Just think what a whole community working
together could do to keep Open Government a reality!