Audit: Local agencies hit and miss when providing records to public

Local governments and their agencies are not consistent in their treatment of public records requests and how they are filled, a Telegraph analysis of an open records audit has found.

The audit, conducted by Mercer University journalism students at the request of The Telegraph, sought to examine compliance with the state Open Records Act among public agencies in Bibb and Houston counties, as well as Macon, Warner Robins, Perry and Centerville.

The results were mixed. While many open records requests in the audit were filled without question, some were never completed, unlawfully denied or prompted fees that could be cost prohibitive to obtaining the records. Some documents provided appeared incomplete or were heavily redacted.

This does not necessarily mean agencies are trying to evade the law. Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said sometimes an incorrectly filled records request is simply a misunderstanding.

“When a citizen has trouble getting an open records request filled, she or he should call up or visit with the records custodian,” Manheimer wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph. “Frequently, a records custodian will not understand the request, so a quick conversation may help to resolve any problems.”

One of the biggest issues The Telegraph’s audit revealed was that the first point of contact often did not know whether the records were public or from whom the documents could be obtained.

For instance, a student inquiring where to receive the last two fire reports from the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department was told by two people in the administrative building that she would have to speak with one of the chiefs. The student left five messages for the chief over seven days with no response.

The student returned to the fire department where she was told she was unable to get the records “until a woman volunteer said that everyone had a right to these documents,” according to the student’s account. The volunteer directed her to a sergeant, who immediately gave her the reports.

When public records were obtained, some were incorrect, incomplete or heavily censored.

One student asked the Houston County Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the previous day’s jail log, which is a list of inmates booked into the jail, and received a copy of the jail officer’s duty log instead.

While Houston County does have an inmate search online, the user must know the name of the inmate to use it. The student reported that she was told the office doesn’t “give out that info and that the deputy keeps the records of all the criminals and where the police were dispatched.”

Another student who asked for the most recent phone bill for all Houston County-owned cell phones received only the bill for Director of Administration Steve Engle.

In another instance, it took four business days — the law allows three — for a student to view the Warner Robins Police Department’s previous day’s incident reports. When she requested a copy, much of it was redacted, including the name of the complainant.

“The use of redaction of certain limited items, like Social Security numbers, when responding to public records requests should be narrowly used, in keeping with the point of the Open Records Act — to make as much public information as possible available to the public,” Manheimer wrote.

Most agencies charged students in line with what the law allows. However, at times, those charges could make obtaining records cost prohibitive.

One student was charged $100.62 for the following documents from the city of Perry: the mayor’s expense reports for the last five trips out of town, the mayor’s e-mails for one week in February, salaries of all city employees, the most recent cell phone bill for all city-owned cell phones, all records requests received by the city in the last 30 days, a copy of the latest approved City Council minutes, and affidavits for the last three executive sessions.

The student was charged $62.50 for 250 copies at 25 cents each, and $38.12 for two hours and 10 minutes of labor, all of which the law allows.

“Overall, my experience with Perry was a good one,” the student wrote in her report. “However, the fees were ridiculous, and if I was not being reimbursed for them, I know I would not have been able to afford them.”

Students had positive experiences, as well. In several instances, those assisting students were described as helpful and polite.

Shelia Thurmond, clerk of the board for the Bibb County Commission, was “INCREDIBLY nice and helpful,” a student wrote.

“She called me when my records were ready, and I went to pick them up. She had numbered them in the order that I had requested them in my letter,” the student reported.

Centerville City Attorney Rebecca Tydings also was willing to provide students with everything they requested from City Hall, although the students modified their request due to the cost of obtaining some of the documents. For instance, the students chose not to get copies of the mayor’s e-mails because doing so would cost $95 per an hour for a contracted information technology expert to retrieve them from the server.

A student seeking the last approved meeting minutes and last two applications received for rezoning from the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission had no trouble receiving the documents. The student was given the documents for review within minutes, and she said the people who helped her were friendly.

Manheimer said those requesting public records can sometimes help their case by bringing along a copy of the law when making their request.

“While most public records custodians do a good job, we all can use more training, since the open records laws sometimes change on an annual basis,” she wrote in her e-mail.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 256-9705.