Fulton County attorney drops bid to limit access to public records

Last week, Fulton County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker threw up her hands and made an extraordinary plea.

Perkins-Hooker said her office was overwhelmed with “frivolous and abusive” requests from the public asking to view county records.

“There are numerous people who just repeatedly fire off Open Records Act (requests), sometimes abusively, with regard to the language they use, with regard to the tone they take to the people they submit the request to, and they have no legitimate purpose,” she told the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

To keep the barbarians from the gate, Perkins-Hooker wanted a change in state law to limit the number of requests a resident can make to no more than 15 per year to the same agency and no more than two requests in any 10-day period. She proposed that citizens who violate the limit could even be charged with a misdemeanor.

This sounds a little like trying to outlaw dogs because the neighbor’s schnauzer is always barking, but Perkins-Hooker, a former Georgia Bar Association president, added that the Georgia Attorney General backed “the concept.” That last part drew an immediate, sharp response from new Attorney General Chris Carr’s office.

“Limiting the rights of all citizens to make requests is not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Open Records Act,” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo wrote in an email to Fulton County.

Why? Because they aren’t the government’s records. Colangelo wrote that public records are “merely held in the custody of the public servants,” but they belong to the public.

Faced with such strong push back, Perkins-Hooker told me this week that she is abandoning her idea. She said she was merely work-shopping an idea on how to deal with repeated requests from abusive and possibly deranged citizens who bombard her office with requests.

And I have no doubt that her office deals with some unpleasant people with a deep distrust of government and a chip on their shoulder about it. Anyone with access to Facebook knows what I’m talking about.

“We have several people who have mental impairments,” Perkins-Hooker said. “We have people who are compulsive with no reason for the information but they get latched on an idea and repeatedly request information.”

And because there are no brakes on the system, these people can continue to file requests forever, she said. Some on the commission are sympathetic to the difficulties their county attorney faces.

“I’m not sure if the public is aware of the myriad of requests that are made,” Commission Chairman John Eaves told me.

Requests average three a day

I was curious, so I filed an open records request myself for the last six months of requests filed with the county and the county’s responses. Within three days I received a log outlining the traffic.

I wasn’t blown away. In fact, I was impressed with what I found.

Based on the log, which I was told represented the vast majority of all requests, the county receives about three requests a day and fills them within three days. That’s the gold standard.

What I didn’t see was a half-dozen nutjobs with 50 records requests each. Perkins-Hooker said the spreadsheet doesn’t adequately show the abuse because the alleged nutjobs alter their requests as they go along, causing more work for everyone. Even so, she said the vast majority of requests are handled quickly.

As well they should. Most are lawyers seeking accident reports, real estate agents looking for tax records and the occasional reporter following a lead. Still, someone new to the world of record requests may be shocked at the 600 or so entries on the list.

Eaves flatly said he is in favor of government transparency. At the same time, he said the commissioners were surprised by the volume.

“For me it just gave me a larger perspective on what the demand is,” he said.

Access to records ‘essential’

But one person’s burden may be another’s sign of a healthy democracy, and government officials may not consider our rights when making policy for their convenience.

In fact, the state’s Open Records Act begins with a preamble that allowing access to government documents is “essential” and that citizens should be encouraged to access them “to foster confidence in government.”

I checked and there’s nothing in there to suggest that citizens had to be pleasant or even — in the judgment of a lawyer — sane to pry open government files.

“Transparency outweighs the nuisance factor by far,” said Commission Vice Chairwoman Liz Hausmann, who asked the Attorney General to weigh in on the idea. “At the end of the day, I can’t see a positive in trying to limit transparency.”

Although Perkins-Hooker says she is dropping the notion, she is not doing so because she believes it to be a bad idea.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough concern,” she said. “But I think the dialog should be taking place somewhere.”

Such ideas are like bells. They cannot be unrung.

The General Assembly convenes next month just a few blocks from the Fulton County’s government offices and it is filled with politicians whose love for the Open Records Act is not boundless.

Every year, lawmakers pass new legislation removing portions of the public record from public scrutiny, whether to shield tax giveaways to companies the state is attempting to snare or to protect a college football coach from losing a star wide receiver. Heck, the Legislature has even excluded itself from the Open Record Act entirely.

Nationally, curbs are rare

But limiting how many times a citizen may ask to see records would be an unprecedented new wrinkle. Flawed though they may be, no state’s sunshine laws seek to limit citizens from asking to see records.

Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he has never heard of anything like it. Claiming that a handful of citizens make the job difficult or that it costs money or resources, isn’t the point, he said.

“The records laws are for the benefit of the public. They don’t exist to make agencies’ lives easier,” he said.

Plus, he said, most states have ways to handle serial abuses of sunshine laws, usually by charging for the service.

Perkins-Hooker said she is hamstrung by a portion of the law that only allows her to require pre-payment for a request if the cost of preparing it exceeds $500. However, the law allows agencies to bill for any costs associated with a request and traditionally they expect payment.

I can attest to this personally. Earlier this fall, I requested documents from Cobb County, which were delivered electronically, along with a bill that I immediately forgot to pay. It was under $500, but when a fellow reporter filed another request last week, Cobb County politely reminded my boss of my outstanding fee and said they would hold my colleagues records until the AJC’s account was current.

Believe me, I hightailed it up to Marietta with my checkbook that afternoon rather than be labeled a nuisance.

But when I filed my request with Fulton County, the county efficiently filled the request but charged me nothing for those documents. I would never encourage a government agency to gouge for public records, but I would not have blinked at a reasonable fee to offset that good work.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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