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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/30/12

Georgia City Fighting Sunshine Laws -

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The city of Cumming, Georgia is litigating against public right to videotape open meetings. Videotaping in a freedom of information context is a crucial part of transparent elections because it lets citizens capture durable evidence in the election. Election processes are (or should be) subject to public observation, yet sometimes public officials try to block this.

Thus, if the city of Cumming were to prevail in its anti-freedom of information lawsuit, it will set the stage for all municipalities in Georgia to refuse public videotaping of election processes like poll closing and vote counting.

What triggered this lawsuit is this: The state of Georgia passed legislation this year explicitly upholding citizen right to videotape public meetings. When a Cumming citizen tried to videotape a meeting, the mayor and the police stopped her. The Georgia AG has stepped in to fight the city of Cumming.

Now this is quite relevant to elections, not just throughout Georgia but across the USA, for this reason:

I've been tracking freedom of information issues nationwide, and have noticed that municipalities are now taking the lead in fighting sunshine laws. The city of Aspen litigated against right to examine ballots (they lost), claiming that home rule exempted them from following state open records law. This is the same argument now being used in Cumming. Representatives from the association of Washington State municipalities testified against providing copies of public records in 2012 legislative hearings, claiming that it is unduly burdensome.

IN THE HOW-IT-WORKS DEPARTMENT: Our tax monies are being expended by public officials not just to carry out day to day tasks, but for expensive junkets to high priced hotels to attend association meetings for a host of quasi-governmental organizations. One such organization is the national League of Municipalities.

These quasi-governmental organizations -- I call them the quazies -- make their money in two ways: (1) They rake in our tax money, though they claim their business is private and in many states do not allow the public to attend any meetings or obtain any records; (2) They also receive money from private corporate vendors, who ply public officials with drink and persuasion in drink-up hospitality suites.

Now add to the mix the paid policy-recommenders. One such high profile entity is ALEC; there are many more, and they offer their "services" to examine public policy issues and provide advice. They even draft suggested legislation, issue policy guidelines, and offer talking points.

There's nothing wrong with public officials getting together for ongoing education and training, but they don't need to do it in resorts and they don't need to meet with vendors and lobbyists to further their professional training. These meetings provide a concentration of targets for off-the-record palm-to-palm procurement fraud with vendors, and also a target-rich environment for policy-steering entities and lobbyists.

If you wonder why cookie-cutter messaging shows up in 20 states at once, or why the same legal argument is used to fight sunshine laws in state after state, it's time to take a closer look at what's happening with the quazies.

Which vendors and policy steering groups attend League of Municipality conferences? I'm guessing that this municipality-led fight against sunshine law has some help in the wings.

The Cumming fight over the mayor blocking a local citizen from videotaping a public meeting has implications, and I'm glad to see the state Attorney General has taken it up. If Cumming wins, it will not bode well for Georgia election transparency; and if Cumming wins, we can surely expect to see copycat anti-rights litigation in other locations around the USA.

Here's the article about the City of Cumming fight:

Daily Report - July 30, 2012, By Kathleen Baydala Joyner

Cumming challenges new sunshine laws

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Bev Harris is executive director of Black Box Voting, Inc. an advocacy group committed to restoring citizen oversight to elections.
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