The Georgia Open Records Act O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70 et seq. declares that Georgia has a strong public policy toward access to public records. This paper discusses the three basic steps to responding to an open records request under the law. The paper makes some specific comments relating to Geographic Information System data. GIS data is a gold mine of information, and many local governments are concerned about freely giving away their expensively created databases to marketers and others. However, the general import of the law is that the information is public, and must be provided.
What is a Public Record?
The Act defines a public record as, "all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70(a).
GIS data, as computer based or generated information, would be a public record subject to disclosure.
Are Records Exempt from Disclosure
Yes, but exemptions are to be interpreted narrowly. The Act provides that all public records are available for personal inspection and copying unless there is a court order or they are specifically exempt. Exemptions include records that are specifically required to be kept confidential by regulation or federal statute; medical records; law enforcement records compiled for prosecution or pending investigation; individual motor vehicle accident reports, and information that has identifiable information of individuals.
However, this Code section shall be interpreted narrowly so as to exclude from disclosure only that portion of a public record to which an exclusion is directly applicable. It shall be the duty of the agency having custody of a record to provide all other portions of a record for public inspection or copying. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-72(50)(b).
Producing the Data
Although information is to be made available, "no public officer or agency shall be required to prepare reports, summaries, or compilations not in existence at the time of the request." O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70(d).
This presents a gray area in relation to GIS. GIS by its nature is a compilation of data that can be searched and retrived by search terms into a report or spread sheet. In fact, this may be the only way to obtain information from a GIS system.
The Program Itself
The use of an electronic method of record keeping by an agency is not a reason to deny the public's access to those records. Agencies are to produce electronic copies or refer the requester to printouts of electronic data that the agency maintains. Refusal to produce electron copies cannot be based on the grounds that exporting data would required inputting a range or search terms into the computer system. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71 (f)
Records from DNR showing location of historic property or rare plants and animals, and DNR has determined that disclosure creates substantial risk of harm, destruction etc. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-72 (a)(14);(15); (16); and (17)
There are other reasons that an agency may deny a request, all of which are specified in O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71 and § 50-18-72.
Three Days to Determine the Response for a Request for Information
The individual in control of such public record or records shall have a reasonable amount of time to determine whether or not the record or records requested are subject to access under this article and to permit inspection and copying. In no event shall this time exceed three business days. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(b)(1)(A).
Report Unavailability or Timeline Within Three Days
In the instance where responsive records exist, but are unavailable, the agency shall provide the requester a description of the records and a timeline for when the records will be available. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(b)(1)(A
Three Days to List Legal Basis for Exemption
If an agency is required or has decided that it will not make some or all of the records available, then it shall provide the requestor with the specific legal authority exempting the requested information from disclosure. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(d).
Access by Computer
Instead of providing printed copies, the agency may direct the requestor to a website for the records sought or may provide a download of the data in a suitable electronic format. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(f) and (g).
An agency may impose a reasonable charge for the search, retrieval, redaction, production, and copying costs for the information requested. Copying charges are not to exceed 10¢ per page or the actual cost of the electronic media on which the records are produced. Further the charges for search or retrieval or redaction shall not exceed the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee involved in the production of documents. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(c)(1) and (2).
Georgia has a strong public policy toward making public records available. Using the Open Records Request Act, a request for information should be made directly to the agency from which records are sought. The agency will then have three days to respond to the request, by either providing the records or stating when they will be available or denying the request. If the request is denied the agency must provide the specific grounds for such denial.