by Mark Woodall, Georgia Recorder
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board is responsible for Georgia’s state parks, coastal resources, wildlife resources including regulation of hunting and fishing, and environmental protection.
The Board has the power to make rules pursuant to the enforcement of legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor. Many of these rules are designed to enforce federal laws delegated to the state, including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Controversial issues of significant public interest come before the Board on a regular basis. A proposal to strip mine Trail Ridge next to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia Power’s cleanup of 92 million tons of coal ash and the air quality around Sterigenics and other users of ethylene oxide are just a few of the recent disputes. All of these matters affect some or all of the people in Georgia and they deserve the opportunity to learn about them.
During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Natural Resources Board meetings were livestreamed and available to be viewed by anyone. Now, livestreaming has been stopped for no apparent or stated reason. Livestreaming is the sort of openness to the public that fulfills the spirit of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws. That it was done under the necessity imposed by pandemic restrictions is no reason to stop doing it now that those limitations are unnecessary.
Other agencies have opened their meetings to the public via electronic media, even the committees of the General Assembly, which are exempt from the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. Shutting down coverage of the DNR Board’s meetings is an affront to the public that the board is obligated to serve.
This is an unnecessary barrier to public participation, as described in a recent Georgia Recorder article.
As Mary Landers, a reporter for “The Current,” a Savannah-based online news service pointed out: “It’s a hardship to do that (drive to Atlanta). You can’t just go (to the meeting) and then go to work. For that, you have to take the day off from work. It’s difficult.” If reporters are shut out of the process, then their readers are shut out.
As noted, the Georgia Legislature livestreams its daily proceedings and committee meetings for the benefit of its constituents. The video is archived for those who miss the live broadcast. Many state agencies and boards offer the public access through livestreaming. The Georgia Public Service Commission broadcasts all of its meetings on YouTube. The Board of Regents’ meetings are livestreamed. The business of the DNR Board is that of the public to as great an extent as that of any others among these agencies, if not moreso. Everyone breathes the air and drinks the water.
The DNR Board needs to consider Section II of Article I of the Georgia Constitution: “Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.” The DNR Board should follow the example of the Georgia General Assembly and the other state agencies that are operating in full view of the public that pays the bills and resume livestreaming their meetings.
The people of Georgia should be able to participate in the proceedings of the DNR Board without driving to Atlanta, or to the various remote locations where the board meets over the course of each year.
This article originally appeared on Georgia Recorder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.