Note: This page covers information specific to Georgia. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Georgia. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about Georgia open meetings law, please consult the Georgia Attorney General's Sunshine Law Citizen's Guide to Open Government and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Georgia.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Georgia Open Meetings Act covers the meetings of "the governing body of an agency" and committees created by its members. The term “agency” includes the following:
- Every state department, agency, board, bureau, commission, public corporation, and authority;
- Every county, municipal corporation, school district and other political subdivision;
- Every department, agency, board, bureau, commission, authority and similar body of each county, municipal corporation or other political subdivision of the state;
- Every city, county, regional or other authority established pursuant to state law; and;
- Non-profit organizations that receive more than one-third of their funds from a direct allocation of state funds from the governing authority of an agency.
Some examples of "governing bodies of agencies" covered by the Open Meetings Act include state boards and commissions (such as the State Board of Medical Examiners and the Soil and Water Conservation Commission), county commissions, regional development authorities, school boards, library boards, hospital authorities, planning commissions, zoning boards, boards of trustees of public universities, and non-profit corporations operating public hospitals. For additional details on government bodies covered by the Open Meetings Act, see the Open Government Guide: Georgia.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act does not apply to federal government bodies.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by Georgia law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under the Georgia Open Meetings Act, a "meeting" is any gathering of a quorum of members of a governing body of an agency (defined above) to discuss or take action regarding official business or policy. The term also applies to information-gathering and fact-finding sessions called by these bodies where a quorum of members are present and the session relates to the body's public business.
Governing bodies may hold meetings by by written, telephonic, electronic, wireless, or other virtual means. However, these electronic meetings must be open to the public and are subject to the notice requirements outlined below. While the law is not certain on this point, it appears that email communications between members of a governing body may constitute a "meeting."
What Are Your Rights?
The Georgia Open Meetings Act give "the public" the right to attend the meetings of governing bodies of agencies, with exceptions for closed meetings discussed below. Georgia law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
It is unclear whether your right to attend public meetings includes the right to participate or comment. As a matter of practice, however, some state and local agencies give the public an opportunity to speak at meetings.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Georgia law requires governing bodies of agencies to establish a set schedule of regular meetings and to post notice of this schedule at a conspicuous location at its regular meeting place. The posted notice for regularly scheduled meetings must include dates, times, and locations for the meetings. See Ga. Code § 50-14-1(d). Governing bodies are required to post agendas for regularly scheduled meetings as far in advance as possible, but not more than two weeks beforehand. See Ga. Code § 50-14-1(e).
Governing bodies of agencies may also hold meetings besides those regularly scheduled, but they must provide notice to the public at least twenty-four hours beforehand. A governing body must post this notice at the place of its regular meetings, and it must give written or oral notice to the local newspaper where notices of sheriff's sales are published or another newspaper with greater circulation in the area. See Ga. Code § 50-14-1(d).
Minutes and Recordings
The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires governing bodies to record minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection. The minutes must contain, at a minimum, the names of the members present at the meeting, a description of each motion or other proposal made, and a record of all votes.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Georgia Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of governing bodies of agencies must be open to the public. A governing body may exclude the public from a portion of a meeting known as a "closed session" if it identifies a specific statutory exemption. Under Georgia Open Meetings Act, a governing body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of nine subject-area exemptions found in Ga. Code § 50-14-3. The nine exemptions are:
- staff meetings held for investigative purposes under duties or responsibilities imposed by law;
- deliberations and voting of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles;
- meetings of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or any other law enforcement agency in the state, including grand jury meetings;
- meetings when any agency is discussing the future acquisition of real estate;
- meetings of the governing authority of a public hospital or any committee thereof when discussing the granting, restriction, or revocation of staff privileges or the granting of abortions under state or federal law;
- meetings when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee;
- adoptions and proceedings related thereto;
- meetings of the board of trustees or the investment committee of any public retirement system when such board or committee is discussing matters pertaining to investment securities trading or investment portfolio positions and composition; and
- meetings when discussing any records that are exempt from public inspection or disclosure pursuant to paragraph (15) of subsection (a) of Code Section 50-18-72, when discussing any information a record of which would be exempt from public inspection or disclosure under said paragraph, or when reviewing or discussing any security plan under consideration pursuant to paragraph (10) of subsection (a) of Code Section 15-16-10.
If a governing body is dealing with one of these exemptions, then it must also vote to close the meeting by a majority of members present and record the reason for the closure in the minutes. A governing body must keep separate minutes for closed sessions. These minutes are not made available to the public, except those portions reflecting the vote and purpose for closure. The chairperson or presiding official must also execute and file with the official minutes of the meeting a notarized affidavit stating under oath that the subject matter of the meeting or closed session was devoted to matters within the exceptions provided by law and identifying the specific relevant exception. Ga. Code § 50-14-4.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you know in advance that a meeting will be closed, and you believe that closure would violate the Georgia Open Meetings Act, you should make a written demand for access on the chairperson of the governing body or its attorney. The demand should remind the governing body of its obligations under the Open Meetings Act and ask it to identify the statutory exception it is relying on to close the meeting. If the governing body refuses your demand for access, you can sue in Georgia Superior Court. If you are successful, a court may order the governing body to make the meeting in question open to the public.
You may also sue to have a court invalidate past actions of governing bodies taken in violation of the Open Meetings Act (but only if you file suit within ninety days of the violation) or order the disclosure of minutes from an improperly closed meeting. If you decide to sue, there may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation. If you win in a lawsuit against a governing body for violation of the Open Meetings Act, a court may force the losing party to pay your attorneys' fees if it determines that the violation was "without substantial justification."
The state may also pursue criminal penalties against members of a governing body who violate the Open Meetings Act.
If you show up at a meeting and the governing body tries to exclude you from it, you do not have time to get a court order. You should remind the presiding officer (or whoever is denying you access) that Georgia Code § 50-14-1 requires that the meetings of the governing bodies of state or local agencies be open to the public unless there is a specific statutory exemption. You should insist on your right to attend unless the presiding officer can identify for you the statutory authority for closing the meeting. If the governing body still insists on excluding you, you have no choice but to leave in an orderly fashion. You may then consider filing a lawsuit.