Attorney General Sam Olens Prevails in Lawsuit Defending Open Government
On August 21, 2014, Judge Robert Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Sam Olens in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the City of Cumming and Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Judge Adamson ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties, the highest amount possible under the law. Defendants have also been ordered to pay attorney’s fees in an amount to be determined at a later hearing.
“This ruling is a major victory for government transparency,” said Olens. “Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly. The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”
At a Cumming City Council meeting on April 17, 2012, Mayor Gravitt demanded that citizen Nydia Tisdale cease filming the meeting and subsequently ordered her to leave the meeting. Ms. Tisdale returned to the meeting with another hand held camera and was again told to stop recording the meeting. Georgia’s Open Meetings Act expressly provides that visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.
“My office takes very seriously our responsibility to enforce the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts," Olens added. "The actions by the mayor in this circumstance were egregious, and it is essential that he be held responsible for his actions.”
Attorney General Olens is a long-time advocate of open government. In 2012, he championed the first overhaul of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts in over a decade, which were signed into law with sweeping approval by the Georgia General Assembly. The revised sunshine laws are more user-friendly and provide tougher penalties for violations. Additionally, the updated law allows the Attorney General to bring civil actions for violations of the sunshine laws. This lawsuit marks the first civil action brought by the Attorney General under the revised law.
“The Georgia First Amendment Foundation (GFAF) is thrilled to see the ‘new’ open government law in action. Enforcement of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Acts are a critical component of the duties of the Office of the Attorney General, and we are delighted to see access rights preserved. We were particularly pleased by the use of the new civil penalties provisions of the new open government laws, and look forward to seeing more of these types of cases,” said Hyde Post, President of GFAF.
A copy of the order is attached.