Sunshine laws overhaul likely on hold this year

Telegraph: legislative notes 3-11-11

ATLANTA — A legislative overhaul that would have sharply increased the fines for violations of Georgia’s sunshine laws and placed new restrictions on officials who don’t hold meetings in public likely won’t reach a vote this year after the proposal’s backers called for more hearings during the summer.

Attorney General Sam Olens asked the House Civil Judiciary Committee to hold hearings about the proposal after the 40-day legislative session ends after he said he heard from lawmakers who feared the proposal was introduced too late in the session to reach a vote. He said he hoped any issues can be resolved so that lawmakers could vote on the plan early next year.

The measure would increase the criminal fines of meetings and records violations to $1,000, up from a $100 fine for violations of the open records act and a $500 fine for flouting the open meetings law. It also would require officials who close meetings to keep notes that a judge can review in case of a legal challenge.

State Rep. Jay Powell, the Camilla Republican who sponsored the measure, said it is needed so that the law is “readable and understandable by a lay person.”

But he said lawmakers shouldn’t rush through the legislation this late in the session.

Aside from stiffer criminal penalties, it would also for the first time call for civil fines of $1,000 for violations of the sunshine laws. And it would allow government agencies to insist on advance payments for records that cost more than $500 to prepare.

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