Cobb County and Chair Cupid Violating Georgia Open Records Laws
Transparency is a key element of public trust and confidence. The values of transparency and accountability in government are critical in understanding how administrations work, if it is working for the people instead of itself, and if its’ operations are being conducted with all hands above the table, instead of deals being made underneath it. A commitment to transparency in government demonstrates to the community that officials have nothing to hide. When officials run for office, they promise transparency and open government where citizens will know what is going on within their government. Lisa Cupid ensured voters that under her, government would always operate in an open and honest fashion.
Fast forward to now, seven months after being on the job, and transparency has left the building. As the Publisher of SPOTLIGHT South Cobb News, I am shining a light on Cupid’s failure to make her actions in governing Cobb align with her words on transparency when she ran. We are pointing out the lack of transparency in Cobb government under her leadership and the failure of those in her administration to follow the law.
A person who is “Transparent” has no secrets, tells no lies, does not hide or try to conceal anything, and does not stand in the way of observers having access to government information. Not so with the Cupid administration as they violate Georgia’s Open Records laws as it relates to an Open Records Request (ORR’s) I made on behalf of SPOTLIGHT. Under the law, Cobb is required to respond to records requests within three-days of submission. This statute highly favors record requesters in Georgia, not governments, but Cobb does not care as reflected in their actions.
In an egregious instance of a government blatantly setting out to make it difficult for someone to get records, Cobb is dodging our request for information and failing to timely delivery documents that were requested weeks ago by SPOTLIGHT. Cobb’s actions are in clear violation of the records act mandate on agency response times. In addition, Cobb has tried to hurt our small community newspaper financially by demanding prepayment of their exorbitant fees, fees that are not being charged to others including larger media outlets in the metro area.
Since our inception, SPOTLIGHT’S goal has been to monitor county government and bring timely news and information to the people of South Cobb and other areas. Weeks ago, several tips came to our attention via the community. As responsible journalists, we knew we needed to get more details on the issues before we reported on them. We submitted to Cobb County an ORR on Friday, July 16, 2021. Our request for info was on several subjects including:
· Land Swaps with Garvis Sams
· Dobbins Air Force Base
· Secret meetings Cupid has been allegedly holding with others outside of County Government
· Cupid’s meeting with Amtrak Officials and Senator Raphael Warnock
Since that date, 16 days ago, we have been given the run around regarding our request and the delivery of responsive documents. We have received emails from the person identifying herself as the ORR coordinator that have been sent to frustrate and confuse our request, while delaying the delivery beyond the 3 days that are required by law to respond. Her various emails included a request to restate my request, provide email address for all county employees mentioned in the request, provide email address for non-county employees mentioned in the request, and provide domain address for non-county entities mentioned.
I thought the email from the County was strange, as we are not aware of anyone ever asking a requestor to provide email address and domain info for a search of county records. The County should be equipped with a search service that should be able to pull up the requested info within a few keystrokes. Having limited info on email addresses for some of the county employees and no info for non-county employees, we submitted what we had. We asked that Cobb County conduct the search based on the names that were provided, which is the normal process when searching for ORR’s.
Cobb came back later in the week and asked if I would pay for the retrieval of documents, which I immediately confirmed that I would. A week after that, Cobb came back again and said that they have not started the search but believed the document requested would exceed $500. They demanded pre-payment before they would begin the process.
I was taken aback by this as the County had indicated that they had not started the document retrieval process. So, how can they determine what it would cost ahead of time and that the cost would exceed $500 if they had not begun the retrieval process? My next thought was in the form of a question…Was Cobb intentionally making it difficult to get these documents and why?
Not to be deterred, I got in my car, drove to Cobb County, and left a check for $500 at the front desk for Cobb County officials. This was on a Tuesday afternoon. My hope was that the documents would be pulled and sent that day or the next. Instead, I got more emails from Cobb stating further delays in producing documents. Even though they had my $500 check in hand, an email complaint came to me from the County Attorney. She claimed that my check was only made out for $500 instead of $700, which was closer to what they are estimating would be the cost. She offered this to me as continued justification for no documents having been retrieved or provided to me three weeks after the request was made to Cobb County.
I sent a response back to the County Attorney questioning the estimated amount, the request for more money, and the demand for prepayment before my request would be honored. I pointed to the continued delay in getting the documents sent to me and how it violated Georgia’s ORR law. The County Attorney responded that they treat all media and citizen requests the same and request prepayment from everyone. She stood by the demand for prepayment before any documents would be pulled.
Being a naturally curious person, I asked for a copy of the documents that she was quoting that says that Cobb requires prepayment for and told her to consider it as a new ORR. I have gotten no response from the County Attorney on this. I advised her that i felt that Cobb County officials were intentionally dragging out my request and that I planned to file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office for Cobb’s violations of the ORR. I restated that I thought the actions and delay were intentional and copied several news outlets prior to hitting send. I never heard back from the County Attorney, but a prominent news reporter responded to my email, saying:
“Hi Sheila, I have never prepaid for documents obtained through an ORR with any Cobb County entity (police, public safety, district attorney, courts, etc.). Typically, we request a cost breakdown if it’s an usually large expense. We then agree to a payment. That payment is never given until we receive the documents requested. Hope this helps.”
If I was uncertain before, I no longer am. It is evident that the documents I requested from Cobb are intentionally being delayed. I am reminded of the situation in neighboring Atlanta where the communication’s office there was directing staff not to respond to an ORR from a local news station and to create confusion in their responses as to delay and frustrate the ORR requestor. In that situation, the Communications Director was charged with violations of the law. A quote from that hearing where she was found guilty summarizes the situation perfectly:
“Citizen engagement with state government should be facilitated by regular, timely, and consistent dissemination of public information and data.”
In closing, elected officials must act in good faith when it comes to government and not try to hide or dissuade the public from knowing what is going on. Transparency in leadership means sharing the good and the bad, while welcoming honest feedback from the community. Putting up roadblocks in the public’s efforts to get information from government is not what the citizens in Cobb are expecting from those they have placed their trust in. I am not sure what the Attorney General’s office will do, but I will ask that they use a similar method they used in Atlanta to get to the bottom of what is going on in Cobb.