ATLANTA — A Georgia House committee diced down a Senate bill Tuesday that would have allowed public employees to have their personal information exempt from public records.
The original version of Senate Bill 215 was approved unanimously in the Senate March 2 and sought to allow all government employees and members of government boards, commissions or agencies to have their residential addresses and phone numbers stricken from all property records that are publicly available on any internet website of the local government.
Many First Amendment advocates spoke against the bill before its vote in the Senate asserting the bill restricts government transparency.
Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in a published opinion piece said the original SB 215 would have allowed government officials and employees to potentially engage in mischief.
“If a county employee wants to conceal the sweetheart deal he got on his property tax valuations, he would now be able to use his invisibility cloak to do it,” Griffiths stated after the Senate’s passage of the bill. “... In the last few years, reporters were able to crosscheck records to expose Atlanta city council members and relatives of a former Atlanta mayor for not paying water bills on their properties – to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Under this portion of the proposed law, it would be simple to invoke secrecy and never get caught."
However, the House Governmental Affairs Committee March 21 approved a version where the exemption of personal information would only apply to law enforcement officers.
“We've seen instances really, over the last several years where people are putting information out there that really just doesn't need to be out there,” said Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican and sponsor of the bill. “And with the access to the World Wide Web it’s a growing problem and we’re simply trying to stop it.”
Though the sponsor of the original SB 215, Brass said the state has a law from years ago that establishes a process for government officials to remove their personal identifiable information.
Personal information about government officials may be redacted from public records if those records identify a person as a public employee, according to Griffiths.
Under the substitute version of SB 215 approved by the House committee, local governments would be required to have a form for officers to fill out to submit the request by Jan. 1, 2024.
The committee also approved an amendment offered by Rep. Barry Fleming that would give law enforcement officers injunctive relief if their information isn’t removed within 30 days after the local government receives his or her request.
Most local governments in Georgia use the qPublic website, which provides online access to maps, real estate data, tax information and appraisal data.
“When qPublic came about, yes, it made it very accessible and very easy for people to do these searches but there's a security issue that is now involved,” Brass said. “Unfortunately, there's always bad actors in really everything we do. And the bad actors in this case are taking what is a good product and they’ve made it bad.”
SB 215 now heads back to the Senate to approve the substitute version.
Other bills related to public records and First Amendment that are still being considered by Georgia lawmakers include:
– HB 165: Records from the Department of Natural Resources that contain information relating to the location or character of a historic resource from public disclosure if DNR determines that disclosure “may create a substantial risk of harm, theft, or destruction to such historic resource, or any property, real or personal, at or near the location of the historic resource.”
– SB 63: Senators passed the bill 31-23 on Feb. 23. The bill targets protestors by adding the charges of rioting, inciting a riot or unlawful assembly, terroristic threats and domestic terrorism to a list of offenses that are considered bail-restricted offense, requiring an appearance before a judge to determine bond under an unsecured judicial release. Those with a bail-restricted offense will only be eligible for release through secured means, a professional bondsman or property as approved by the sheriff.
– HB 196: The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission would be subject to the Administrative Procedure Act and laws governing open meetings and open records, under HB 196, which has been approved in the House in a 170-2 vote. The proposal also establishes a legislative oversight committee that could look into and review the operations of the commission and "conduct any independent audit or investigation of the commission that it deems necessary.”