State official ‘disappointed’ at school board turnout for training on sunshine laws

acastillo@macon.comMay 2, 2012 

Bibb County school officials got a primer on Georgia’s new sunshine laws Wednesday, but the man who led the training said he was disappointed that more board members weren’t on hand to listen.

School board members Tom Hudson and Lynn Farmer attended the 90-minute session at the board headquarters. Wanda West arrived after the end of the meeting, and five members did not show.

The session by Stefan Ritter, the state’s senior assistant attorney general, followed complaints by The Telegraph about the way the school system has dealt with open record requests in recent months.

“After hearing a series of complaints, we decided the easiest way to address” the situation was to hold Wednesday’s training session, Ritter said. The session, he said, “was not to throw stones.”

Before he began, Ritter said, “I’m disappointed that there aren’t more members of the board here today.”

Hudson said after the meeting that work obligations may have kept some members from attending.

Before the session, Hudson thanked Ritter for coming, saying the reason for Wednesday’s session was “quite contrary to what may have been said in the media.”

Asked later to elaborate, Hudson expressed concerns that the Macon media focus on the system’s shortfalls and encourage division in the community.

“I think it’s very informational,” he said of the session. “It’s better to prevent than deal with (problems) after the fact.”

Along with about 30 members of the public other officials at the meeting included Superintendent Romain Dallemand, deputy superintendents, in-house attorney Randy Howard and Brad Carver, who is with the school system’s law firm Hall Booth Smith & Slover.

Ritter said government transparency is “about the top priority” of state Attorney General Sam Olens.

“I can tell you (Olens) takes open government issues seriously,” he said.

In April, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law changes to the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings provisions. Some of the changes include higher sanctions for government agencies that do not follow the law, fining them $1,000 for the first offense and $2,500 for subsequent offenses within a year. It also lowers copying costs for records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page.

Ritter reviewed those changes as well as rules about holding meetings, keeping minutes, having executive sessions that are closed to the public and releasing public documents. He also said that in disputes over the sunshine laws, the laws should be interpreted in favor of openness.

He also emphasized that the attorney general’s office intervenes in cases questioning whether sunshine laws have been followed, but the office does not take sides with the parties in question. Residents can also settle disputes in court.

“We do not have a political side in what’s going on today,” Ritter said.

Wednesday’s session drew the attention of representatives from other local governmental agencies, such as Alfred Pitts, a member of the Jones County school board.

Pitts said he wanted to be informed about the state’s sunshine laws and their applications in his jurisdiction.

“As a board you have to be careful,” Pitts said. “It’s important to know the rules so you don’t violate the rules.”

Susan Turner, a Bibb County resident, said she is concerned about travel spending by top school officials while not all students have textbooks to take home.

Turner said she felt reassured by Ritter’s explanations and in knowing that residents have options if there is a conflict.

“It’s nice to know there’s a recourse,” she said.

Dallemand said there was value in Ritter’s visit to Bibb County.

“We thought this was a good opportunity for Mr. Ritter to come down himself and share with the public what the law says.”

The superintendent insisted that the school system has been handling open record requests properly.

“We have been following the law, and we will continue to follow the law,” he said.

Board member Farmer said she was “very pleased” with Ritter’s presentation. She said she has heard complaints in the community about people not receiving information in a timely manner, adding that she hopes that the session can lead to a better working relationship between the school system and the public.

“I hope that we follow the law,” she said. “I think with everything explained today, it’s very clear we’re a government entity. We should be open.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.

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