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Shining the Light on Government
Honoring those that promote open government

Mary Patrick
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 speak.

US 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.

Rep. 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 the laws.

PSC 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 year.

Gwinnett 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.”

LINDA 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.”

IFFAT 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.

DOUG 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” entities).

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!

 

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