I have been a resident of South Georgia for nearly two years now and, in that time, I have seem some real circus shows in government. But few things top what is happening in Tattnall County right now.
I am not exactly sure what my job title is. Writer, pot stirrer, transparency guru, whatever the name of the day may be, I spend my days examining local governments. I was recently contacted by someone who asked me to look into a matter in the county magistrate judges’ office, one that seemed extremely simple if I spent some time sifting through paperwork at the county courthouse.
On Monday, I inquired as to what process the Magistrate Court uses to allow citizens/media to inspect documents. I was told “there are no records,” but that if I wanted anything, I would have to sit down with the judge. This is not my first rodeo and it is inappropriate to require someone to sit down and explain themselves in order to review public records, but I complied anyway.
When I arrived at the office, recently re-elected Judge Eddie Anderson came to speak with me in the lobby of the office. I explained to him what it was I was seeking and he repeatedly said it was not a “court of record.” This simply means that no court reporter is in the courtroom and hearings are not recorded via audio or video. Magistrate offices often have fewer files because cases usually end up in state or superior court, however, unlike Judge Anderson’s suggestions, this does not mean the court has no documentation or paperwork.
To my every question, Judge Anderson responded that they were not a court of record. When I asked how anyone was able to know what happens in his court if the office keeps no paperwork, he told me I would need to be in the courtroom. I was irritated, but left the office with the understanding that I would return with something in writing.
And on Tuesday, I did. I returned with a one page piece of paper with four line items and code section from the Georgia Open Records Act. Judge Anderson became extremely upset very quickly. He began yelling and telling me the records “did not pertain to me,” I was not a lawyer and I was “not getting anything.” When I tried to explain the law, he told me it is his office and yelled “Good Day!” a few times to see me out. His final words were that he was simply and plainly denying my request. Good thing I had all of that recorded.
Naturally, I wrote about the situation as it pertained to my job on Tuesday evening. What I did not know when I was in Judge Anderson’s office is that courts are not governed under the ORA the same way other entities are, but while there is still some gray area, courts must still provide public records.
Wednesday, around lunch, I received a letter from Judge Anderson’s legal counsel/the county attorney stating that I would be permitted to view a few legal books, but that I violated two laws on Tuesday. Lucky for me, “Judge Anderson was “probably not” going to seek criminal action.”
You really have to read it for yourself to grasp the tone:
(click to enlarge)
Unfortunately for Mr. McGovern, he does not understand the law. Not only was he wrong about Open Records Laws, he misrepresented the language about recording people. The code section he cited was irrelevant he is apparently blatantly unaware of the fact that Georgia is a one-party consent state. What I found to be the most frustrating, though, is the attorney’s assumption that I had no understanding of the law and had no ability to look it up. He used the wrong law to try to intimidate me. It speaks volumes about how these two view their citizens as well.
So why does all of this back and forth matter? It matters because this happens nearly every time I seek a records request. What starts as a minor request to view a narrow set of documents explodes into firestorm and for what? A councilman from the Atlanta area texted me after reading the letters on Wednesday and said, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to respond to your request?”
Yes, yes it would. It would be very easy for everyone to provide documents, but this situation is why citizens rarely file requests. When they’re put through the ringer in hopes they will give up, something is wrong with the system. Worse, many rural counties use a lack of technology as an excuse for a lack of transparency and instead govern under the premise that you govern best when your citizens know the least. It is everything you see in the movies.
Attorney General Chris Carr stated earlier this week that his office will soon begin a statewide tour on local government transparency for some of these entities. It cannot happen soon enough. These small county governments are out of control and have zero oversight. They are accountable to no one. Citizens have no recourse other than to wait for the next election cycle, and Lord only knows what can be done in that amount of time.