Attorney General initiates mediation process with Effingham Co. over open case complaint • The Georgia Virtue

The Georgia Attorney General’s Office initiated mediation with Effingham County after a media entity filed a lawsuit against the county under the Open Records Act.

TheGeorgiaVirtue.com filed a complaint in early April after a series of emails with county employees produced inadequate records, a misrepresentation of whether or not records existed, and an adamant refusal to identify any of the documents provided by the county.

Chronology

March 21, 2022, TheGeorgiaVirtue.com filed an application for open registration for salary and employee compensation/classification at two times (01/01/21 and 07/01/21) for county employees and employees of the sheriff’s office – for a total of 4 documents.

TheGeorgiaVirtue.com made a request based on discussions at a public meeting and a compensation survey conducted within the year corresponding to the records sought. The county provided the documents to the company conducting the salary study.

Effingham County uses a portal that protects the name of the communicating county employee. On March 22, 2022, the response from “EFFINGHAMSUPPORT” stated that the county was not required to create a report and did not otherwise maintain payroll records and employee lists for the sheriff’s office. The message said the sheriff’s office should be contacted.

It should be noted that the county did not have the exact document requested for the county employee portion of the application, but provided the closest similar document which, in its own words, contained “most” of the requested information.. The county partially responded to the request. The portal only provided one point in time for county employee compensation, instead of two points in time.

(For clarification: The sheriff’s office does not handle payroll. The county maintains all payroll software. The county also keeps records regarding pay dates, employee name, and amount of compensation. This was evidenced in the county’s submission of employee information to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget for a recent grant. The sheriff’s office only submitted information to the county government as a “gatekeeper.” That’s what prompted the original request. )

March 23, 2022, TheGeorgiaVirtue.com filed a request with the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office for the exact same information.

On March 24, 2022, after specifying the documents TGV needed, the sheriff’s office provided one of the two requested documents before the close of business on a Thursday, noting that the other document would be provided the following Monday. (Sheriff’s office administration is closed on Fridays, so records officers said she should contact the human resources manager on Monday to get the necessary information)

There was no problem with communication with the sheriff’s office other than it didn’t make sense that the SO had to go back to the county to get information that the county sent me to the SO to pick up. It also didn’t make sense that, based on what was provided, the county human resources manager who handles payroll, did NOT have current payroll data for the sheriff’s office, but DID has old data from 2021 which is no longer used.

March 28, 2022 – As promised, the sheriff’s office provided the requested information as of 01/01/21. The email has been forwarded to TheGeorgiaVirtue.com and the attachment included correspondence from the director of human resources to the employee at the sheriff’s office. In this e-mail, the director of human resources has attached the very document requested by TheGeorgiaVirtue.com a week prior, which county employees said in writing did not exist.

Records provided by the sheriff’s office brought the total number of documents to three out of four since the initial request.

March 28, 2022because the only county manager/HR document provided on 03/22/22 did not contain details to distinguish whether or not the data was for 01/01/21 and 07/01/21 (the document was simply titled ‘2021 budget’) TheGeorgiaVirtue.com asked for clarification on the document. The request was instead marked as “completed” and no response was ever provided, and no additional documentation was uploaded to respond to the request.

According to OCGA 50-18-71(f), access to electronic records should not be restricted. It specifies in particular:

An agency shall not refuse to produce such records, data, or electronic data fields on the grounds that the report data…will require the entry of ranges, searches, filters, report parameters, or similar commands or instructions into the an agency’s computer system…so long as the commands or instructions can be executed using existing computer programs that the agency uses in the normal course of business to access, support, or otherwise manage data records .

TheGeorgiaVirtue.com‘s complaint to the Georgia Attorney General stated:

“Due to the county’s clear and willful neglect of public records, the request was extended well beyond the time needed, used the resources of at least three different departments and agencies, and monopolized the resources taxpayers in a show of willful disrespect for the law.

If not for the transparency and thoroughness of the sheriff’s office, I wouldn’t have known the county lied about the documents in the first place. (For this reason, I want to make it clear that my complaint is in no way about the ECSO.) All of this is particularly troubling because the county’s obfuscation has completely eroded public confidence in the process. Every citizen, media entity and elected official who files a request for public records must now consider whether or not the request has been met in full.

At the time of this article’s publication, 43 days have passed since the last request for assistance to county employees.

Other complaints under the Open Records Act

Since TheGeorgiaVirtue.com began filing open registration applications related to the above-mentioned compensation study on March 10, 2022, the county missed the deadlines as stated in the law, misstated the provisions of the law in its portal recordings (particularly regarding recording production costs and timelines), and has on several occasions provided documents, closed a request and, after a public rebuke, uploaded additional documents to give the impression that they were provided correctly the first time – seeming to believe that the portal does not display the “download” date.

The Attorney General’s office received all documentation with the complaint.

Action by the Attorney General

Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo wrote a letter to County Attorney Lee Newberry on May 9, 2022 requesting a response regarding the claims and allegations.

Under Georgian law, the Attorney General, as an independent constitutional officer, has discretion to apply the Open Cases Act and the Open Meetings Act. OCGA §§ 50-14-5(a), 50-18-73(a). The Attorney General does this through a mediation program where citizens can raise issues with the AG’s office regarding the laws. The first line of action includes attempts at resolution, however, in the past, complaints filed by TGV have resulted in open government retraining exercises for elected officials and county employees.

The Office of the Attorney General also reserves the right to prosecute these cases when it deems it appropriate.

Effingham County has 10 business days to respond. This date is May 23, 2022.

The Attorney General’s letter and the full complaint filed by TheGeorgiaVirtue.com is available below.

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