ATLANTA – The Georgia First Amendment Foundation gave the 2015 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens at a dinner September 17 to honor his commitment to improving open government laws in Georgia.
The dinner was held in the Silverbell Pavilion at the Emory Conference Center.
The foundation also honored citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale, who was represented by the attorney general in a lawsuit filed on her behalf over open meeting violations in Cumming, Ga. GFAF President Shawn McInstosh presented Ms. Tisdale the foundation’s 2015 Open Government Hero award for her tenacious commitment to transparency in local government.
Olens has acted in the best traditions of former Chief Justice Charles L. Weltner in pursuing changes to Georgia’s Open Records and Meetings Acts designed to enhance the ability of Georgia citizens to access public records and public government gatherings. Among other enhancements, the changes strengthened enforcement provisions of the acts. And since the law was updated, Olens has used those provisions to successfully sue violators.
Of particular note, on August 21, 2014, Judge Robert Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Olens in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the City of Cumming and Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Judge Adamson ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties, the highest amount possible under the law, as well as attorney’s fees.
“Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly,” Olens said. “The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”
The case began with a Cumming City Council meeting on April 17, 2012. Mayor Gravitt demanded that citizen Nydia Tisdale cease filming the meeting and subsequently ordered her to leave the meeting. Ms. Tisdale returned to the meeting with another hand held camera and was again told to stop recording the meeting. Georgia’s Open Meetings Act expressly provides that visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.
In addition to the state action brought by Olens, Tisdale also brought suit in federal court. The local government defendants settled that case for $200,000 and written assurances that city policies would allow public filming of all future meetings.
A video about Olens was introduced by Presiding Justice Harris Hines of the Georgia Supreme Court.