At Thursday night’s meeting, the Board of Commissioners voted to adopt a policy to prohibit publishing employee files in any official capacity, be it on an agenda, in meeting minutes, or on its website.
The files in question are subject to open records law and thus accessible by both commissioners and the public. The policy does not limit the ability of a commissioner or a resident to access the files. It also does not prevent a resident from taking those properly obtained (and redacted) files and publishing them online. It only serves to say that commissioners cannot publish the files in an official capacity, regardless of their importance to an official county business issue.
“I just think it’s bad practice to just be randomly posting employee files and information in the agenda or website. It’s one of those things, just because you can do something don’t mean you should,” said Commissioner Randy Ognio. “I would relate that to you can wrassle a rattlesnake, but you wouldn’t necessarily do that.”
Commissioner Steve Brown countered that it will hamper the government’s ability to inform the residents about important information.
“The state law was created to give citizens information about their government, and any attempt at keeping publicly accessible records out of the public forum in any way should be construed as a glaring sign that new political leadership is required,” he said. “What Vice Chairman Ognio is espousing on limiting exposure to open records in very public government channels is nothing less than government tyranny.
“I think that’s a real hindrance. I think it’s a very real First Amendment concern,” he continued. “I think the state created Open Meetings and Open Records laws for a very specific reason, and a large part of that is to avoid what we’re attempting to do with this agenda item.”
The policy prohibits the ability to include what could be supporting documentation in the agenda packet that many residents review when attending the county meetings or watching them online.
“This is where we do the people’s business,” he said. “They ought to be allowed to see the same documents that I have.
“We’re heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and I’m not so sure this would even hold legal water if we did it and the Board said we couldn’t have something on an agenda. I’m just wondering what the courts would say about something like that.”
Brown called the move an offshoot of the tussle over the 911 call center investigation and not evidence of an epidemic. Files related to disciplinary issues were relevant to the discussion of the workplace environment. The need to include personnel files in an agenda packet would likely continue to be rare.
He also reminded that they have received legal confirmation from both the county attorney and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation that everything done was legal, and that government employees, commissioners included, have their personnel files subject to open records law. He also expressed concern that there is no notification to employees that their records are subject to those open records laws.
Commissioner Charles Oddo saw it as an ethical issue to not share the information publicly.
“This is not preventing anyone from getting this information and getting it redacted, it’s just simply saying that we won’t take employee information and include it in public documents unless we have to,” he said, noting that the law doesn’t say the county has to publish the records, just provide access to them.
He also said that there could be times they will be going against the very policy they were approving.
“If, for whatever reason I can’t think of, it requires publication, then it will be published, but in general it will be our policy,” he said.
Chairman Eric Maxwell acknowledged that he could change his mind down the road.
“There might be an item down the road that needs to be published. I don’t know,” he said. “I get what you’re saying. This is a little restrictive when you make your presentation, and I may even join with you.
“I may have to change this policy.”
The Board voted 4-1 to pass the policy, only Brown in opposition.