Refusal to release fire chief candidate names prompts legal action by WJBF and other media outlets

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – On Friday, April 23rd a letter of intent to file suit for sunshine law violation was delivered to the City of Augusta on behalf of WJBF and 2 other media outlets. (Complaint on file)

The legal action was taken after a FOIA request ( FOIA sent to city by WJBF) was delivered to the city of Augusta on April 15th by WJBF news staff requesting “copies of resumes, correspondence and other documents pertaining to no less than three finalists for the position of Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief under GA § O.C.G.A 50-18-72 (a)(11).”   Also in the request, a notice of pause on hiring for the position of Fire Chief no less than 14 days after public disclosure of the candidate’s names.  

According to Georgia’s Open Records statute, there is a 3 business day window for a response indicating receipt of the Open Records Request or FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.  The receiving party then has 14 days to either deliver upon the request or update with documented reason as to why the FOIA cannot be fulfilled.  WJBF received no response until the April 21st public announcement that DeKalb County Deputy Fire Chief, Antonio Burden was the sole finalist for the job. 

In a notice sent to WJBF the city of Augusta refused the request stating that confidentiality can be kept because, “records consisting of confidential evaluations submitted to, or examinations prepared by, a governmental agency and prepared in connection with the appointment or hiring of a public officer or employee.”  City Attorney Wayne Brown’s letter to WJBF also states, “Prior to the release of these documents, an agency may allow such a person to decline being considered further for the position rather than have documents pertaining to such person released. In that event, the agency shall release the documents of the next most qualified person under consideration who does not decline the position.”   This denial letter sent to WJBF included the resume of sole finalist, Antonio Burden (Denial and Burden resume) The City of Augusta, on Friday April 23rd, sent the official city job posting along with the interview presentation and qualification matrix for Burden (Job posting and matrix).

WJBF along with the other media outlets retained the services of Georgia Press Association attorney and local Augusta counselor, David Hudson, to respond to the city’s denial of the FOIA.  The letter of intent from Hudson to City Attorney, Wayne Brown states; “What the City must keep in mind is that all records on candidates for Fire Chief are public records.”  According to Hudson, the city does have the right to exclude those candidates other than the 3 deemed “best qualified” to hold the position.   Hudson, in his letter to the city, also provided a 2013 memo from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office in support of providing the names and qualifications of the final 3 candidates for executive held positions within a municipality where the employee’s salary will be paid for through taxpayer dollars (Letter of intent and GA attorney general letter).

You can read more of WJBF’s coverage pertaining to the hiring of the Augusta Richmond County Fire Chief HERE.

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