AUGUSTA PRESS, ET AL V THE CITY OF AUGUSTA/RICHMOND COUNTY

Court: Richmond County Superior
Case Number: 2021RCCV00274
Decision Date: May 05, 2021
Case Type: Open Records

The Augusta Chronicle and three other local media outlets sued the City of Augusta for declining to release records identifying already discounted applicants for the position of city fire chief, pursuant to state open records law. The suit sought a preliminary injunction demanding the City turn over the requested records and wait 14 days before hiring a fire chief.

The Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. § 50-18-72(a)(11)) mandates only the disclosure of identifying documents pertaining to as many as three persons whom a public agency considers to be the best qualified and which are currently under consideration for the position of executive head. At the time the Open Records request was made the city has yet to conduct any interviews and had not narrowed the field of applicants to determine which of those four were the “best qualified”, other than determining who they would interview. The city had chosen to interview a total of four candidates. After the Open Records requests were submitted, the city conducted the interviews and discounted three of the four interviewees as being unsuitable for the role, and then promptly released the information of the one remaining candidate that would be put to the Commission for consideration.

The media argued that “as many as three” actually meant “at least three” despite the clear language of the law. Although the trial court stated it did not agree that the statute meant “at least three” its ruling held in favor of the Plaintiffs to the same effect as a determination that the statute meant “at least three.’ The court ordered the public release of information pertaining to a total of three candidates for the job and determined that the city likely had a top three on the date the requests came in or could have reasonably made a list of the top three at that time, again, despite the city having not conducted any interviews by that date. This decision is concerning as it leaves cities and job applicants in an uncertain position, given that the names and personal information of already discounted candidates were ordered to be released.