Freshman State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, earned the distinction last week of passing his first bill in the Georgia House.
House Bill 479 makes some much-needed housekeeping changes in Georgias Child Fatality Review Panels, which investigate suspicious child deaths. The revisions, which await Senate action, clear up confusion over membership on county panels and on the states multi-agency review panel, and gives the state board more leverage when local panels fall down on their duties.
It was a real milestone to get your first bill passed, Fleming says.
The bill also demonstrates a fact of life for lawmakers: New laws often have flaws, such as the original law that HB 479 updates. In that vein, Fleming has signed on to another bill that seeks to revise Georgia law - but in this case, the revision itself needs revising.
HB 833, written by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, clarifies the way public records are requested from local governments. While the bill exempts some frequently requested items - such as meeting agendas, records of actions taken or meeting minutes - the changes would allow local governments to require written requests for most other public records.
To its credit, the proposal would allow those requests via e-mail or fax in addition to mail or hand-delivery. But even those methods mean any citizen asking for public documents would have another hoop to jump through.
Thats the crux of the problem with these revisions. Access to public records should be easier, not harder. Requiring written requests, even with good intentions, has the potential to make access more difficult.
Open records laws often are evaluated in the context of how they affect the media, and its true that newspapers take seriously their right to review public documents. But journalists have no special access to government records; every citizen is entitled to them.
Journalists by nature are more aware of how the laws work because their livelihoods depend on it. Changes such as those in HB 833 would create little inconvenience to reporters who would quickly learn the process, but the changes could stymie the average citizen who wants information from his or her government.
Such access is difficult enough under current regulations, as a statewide review by Georgia Press Association members showed a couple of years ago. Far too many agencies around the state skirt existing law to keep the public in the dark.
Fortunately, Fleming recognizes the concerns about his bill. Im willing to amend it in any way to resolve these questions, Fleming says. I just saw these revisions as common sense.
Unlike Flemings child-panel bill, HB 833 isnt likely to pass this session, and would be held over until next year. That leaves plenty of time for revisions - and lots of time to exercise common sense.
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