Updated: Aug 12
The following is an editorial submitted by Roswell City Councilmember Sarah Beeson on March 23, 2023 to the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald in response to the city's efforts to limit public access to open records. Ultimately, the vote passed 5-1, with Councilmember Beeson as the only councilmember opposed to the policy change.
“Open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society…” § 50-18-70, Georgia Open Records Act
As Roswell City Council prepares for the final deliberations of a resolution that would alter the city’s Open Records Request policy on Monday, March 27, I urge my fellow councilmembers to pause and reflect on the spirit of the Georgia Open Records Act, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and our charge as lawmakers to foster an open government.
According to language in the pending resolution, the City of Roswell would require requesters to provide “verifiable” names and addresses to fulfill open records requests, or if the requester wishes to remain anonymous, to require retrieval of their request in person at City Hall. To me, this proposed change begs a lot of questions: what is “verifiable” identity? How does one remain anonymous if they are required to appear in person to retrieve public records? Why does Roswell need to implement this change while other cities do not require “verified” identity to fulfill and collect fees for open records requests? Why does the resolution state that this change is needed in order to collect existing charges for fulfillment, yet we’ve never had a requester fail to pay in the past?
The Georgia Open Records Act makes very clear the definition of public records, the timeliness of response on behalf of agencies providing access to said records, and that public records must “be open for personal inspection and copying.” The act goes as far as outlining which records are exempt (ex. those relating to confidential, secure, or private information), granting agencies the ability to reasonably charge for cumbersome requests, and even defining how much an agency can charge for such requests.
Want to know what the Georgia Open Records Act never defines? A requirement to provide identification on behalf of the requester.
In accordance with this law, the City of Roswell currently charges a reasonable fee for the preparation and fulfillment of Open Records Requests. We’ve also never had a requester stiff the bill. So, to say this change is necessary to recoup taxpayer costs is a red herring. As a public agency, the City of Roswell is legally obligated to provide non-exempt public records within a timely manner regardless of who made the request. Whether the open records request is initiated by Councilmember Sarah Beeson or Mickey Mouse, the city is equally held to the same requirements for fulfillment. The burden of transparency lies on us as a city — not on the private citizen to divulge their identity in exchange for public information which they’re legally entitled to receive.
There is a long tradition of anonymity and the role it as a concept plays throughout the shaping of the American government — going back as far as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay publishing the Federalist Papers under the then-anonymous pseudonym "Publius." The cover of anonymity allows for private citizens or members of the press to request information duly owed to them as enshrined in law without fear of retribution. Anonymous free speech is a protected right according to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution — a document we as duly elected councilmembers are sworn to uphold. With that, I implore my fellow councilmembers to remember our shared oath and side with transparency by voting against Monday’s resolution requiring “verifiable identity” to receive open records.