Dick Yarbrough

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative, there is one thing that should unite one and all – how government spends your tax dollars.  In Georgia, the best way to know that is through the state’s Open Records law.

In short form, government entities, agencies and individuals using our tax dollars must – with very limited exceptions --  make all documents available to us upon request.  Unfortunately, nothing in the law says it must be done willingly or cooperatively.

One of the most egregious examples of a “public be damned” response to Open Records is occurring in Cobb County.

Cognia, the principal school accreditation agency in Georgia, is currently conducting a “special review” of the Cobb County School District at the behest of three Black Democrats on one of the world’s most dysfunctional school boards because they either can’t get along with the four white Republicans or don’t want to.

The Democrats asked Cognia for its “professional expertise in ensuring that the Cobb Board of Education is upholding its duties as a governing body.” That is in lieu of looking in the mirror and discovering where the problem really lies.

Cognia agreed to the review saying it had received 50 community and staff complaints.  Complaints?  From whom? About what?  Are they legitimate complaints or did some friends of the Democrats do their pals a favor and make up stuff?

No one knows because Cognia isn’t saying.  The Marietta Daily Journal has asked to see the complaints to no avail. Cognia says they are not subject to Open Records.  Even the school district has not been allowed to see them.

Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson says flatly, “Cognia is paid with taxpayer money for the services it provides to the Cobb School District. Therefore, the organization’s documents are subject to Open Records requests.” Still Cognia refuses to budge.

Okay, time to call in the big guns – Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr. His office is charged with ensuring compliance with the Open Records law.  Or, so I thought.

“We will be unable to mediate your complaint,” Jennifer Colangelo, an assistant attorney general in Carr’s office, informed the Marietta Daily Journal, saying in part, “Based on the facts and email correspondence presented here, it is unclear whether the records you requested from Cognia are public records and it is therefore unclear whether Cognia is violating the Open Records Act.”

Colangelo finishes the kiss-off with this head-scratcher, “The thoughts I have expressed in this email are not the official opinion of our office.” Say what?   I have seen better punts in a Pee Wee football game.

I would remind Colangelo that her boss is running for reelection against a tough opponent and telling the media that Cognia’s arrogant attitude is their problem, not the AG’s, is not the best way to win friends and influence voters.  Don’t think the newspapers in Georgia – including this one – haven’t noticed.

Jim Zachary is editor of the Valdosta Times and President Emeritus of Georgia’s First Amendment Foundation.  I asked him about the Attorney General’s response. “I do not see the ambiguity the AG’s office is referring to,” Zachary says. “In my view, this is not a matter of just who holds the record but what is in the record and it seems obvious the contents of the documents in question are the people’s business and if it is the people’s business, it should be public.”

Zachary goes on to say, “People with nothing to hide, simply don’t hide. So, the greater question here is not only what is Cognia trying to hide but what are the three members of the board hiding from the very public they were elected to serve?”  An excellent question.

Cognia’s leadership is not elected and it has a near monopoly in the business.  But their day of reckoning may be coming.

They are likely to find themselves in the legislative crosshairs in the next session of the General Assembly. State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Cobb, a former chair of the Cobb School Board, says he has concerns over the motivations behind the review since the district had received renewed accreditation just two years earlier not to mention a lack of competition in the accreditation industry.

Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Cobb, says, “There is no question that a private, unelected organization like Cognia, which wields power over our public schools, should not operate behind a cloak of secrecy.”  She plans to introduce legislation “to fix the problems with accreditation in Georgia,” meaning watch out, Cognia.

I saw a quote recently that said, “Keeping secrets from someone is no different than lying to them.  It’s still dishonest.”  To any school district in Georgia doing business with this bunch in the future, remember that.  In my opinion, Cognia has taken a major hit to its reputation by kowtowing to three disgruntled Democrats and then summarily thumbing its nose at the taxpaying public.  I can’t be more open than that.

• Dick Yarbrough is a four-time winner of the Best Humor Column by the Georgia Press Association. Reach him at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.