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The Georgia First Amendment Foundation advances the cause of open government and freedom of information through education and advocacy.

Kathryn Allen will be “pushing the buttons” of Georgia public officials about open government “until someone tells me to stop,” she says

BY TOM BENNETT

ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

She has been in the forefront of it for years, but now Kathryn Allen, Georgia senior assistant attorney general, will formally shape the state’s work on freedom of information as coordinator for open government in the attorney general’s office.

“Effective immediately, the Attorney General has assigned Kathryn Allen the responsibility of acting as the office-wide coordinator for open government issues in the Law Department,” Jeff Millsteen, chief deputy attorney general, wrote to the staff Aug. 13.

What is Allen’s response to her new job title?

“I feel very flattered that the office has given me this opportunity and recognized me in this way,” she said.

“I’m challenged by it because I know there’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s new, a lot of dealing with different personalities that are going to be involved. A lot of times our clients get, what is the word I’m looking for, agitated. You have to push their buttons sometimes about open records. I have to deal with it.

“For instance, I just told a lawyer who represents an unnamed client that is trying to choose an executive head of the agency, ‘You need to be like Caesar’s wife.’

“He said, ‘Who’s Caesar’s wife?’

“I said, ‘You know, be above reproach.”

Open government is part of the A.G. office’s section on Education, Elections and Local Government and Judiciary. She was asked: Might it ever become its own section?

“I suppose it could,” she replied. “What we’re doing now is kind of uncharted. I don’t know what my parameters are. I guess just to push until someone tells me to stop.”

Allen, the daughter and niece of Alabama lawyers, is a graduate of Atlanta’s Emory Law School . She has been a member of the Ga. Attorney General’s office since 1978.

In 1990, she represented the state Department of Human Resources in the case, Georgia Hospital Association v. Ledbetter, that established DHR records of the accreditation of hospitals, public and private, are open.

Thurbert Baker was appointed Attorney General in 1997. The following year, he wrote the bill establishing his office’s open government mediation program, modeled on one in Florida , and it was signed into law in July 1998 by Gov. Roy Barnes.

Led by Allen and Dennis Dunn, chief of the section, the A.G.’s office has logged 436 open-government matters. It has cleared hundreds of them through mediation, using firm letters citing the law and urging both sides to seek solutions.

In 2002, Allen caught flaws in the then two-year-old Georgia Technology Authority’s scheme to categorize state records, which could have rendered most “internally restricted.”

The GTA plan “may lead to misunderstandings among state employees as to what the law is regarding public records and in some circumstances will lead to violations of the Open Records Act,” Allen wrote.

This month she and her department responded to Rodney Moore, general counsel for the Atlanta Public Schools. He denied the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for draft student discipline records.

“The position set forth by you… lacks any basis in state law or case law,” Moore had written to Allen.

“Absent the Attorney General rendering a formal opinion, APS cannot view the position set forth in your letter as persuasive.”

In a sharp retort, Attorney General Baker wrote Moore Aug. 15 that the records should be open and Allen “correctly states my position on this issue.”

Born in Atlanta , Allen grew up in Demopolis , Ala. She graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History.

She taught history in Baldwin County , Ala. , and then in Atlanta was a staff instructional teacher going to public schools across the city and relieving teachers who were taking in-service training.

“That was an important experience for me,” she recalled. “At some schools I was the only white person. I experienced all kinds of different cultures. I taught from kindergarten to the twelfth grade.”

In a major career change, she entered law school at Emory and was in the top 15 percent of her class, graduating in 1978.

As an assistant attorney general, she argued a number of important cases including:

State Board of Education v. Drury; Emory v. Peeler; Donaldson v. Clark; Lowe v. State of Georgia; Southern Branches of NAACP v. Cox; Cline v. Supreme Ct. of Georgia; and Spottsville v. Barnes.

In announcing to the staff her new role as coordinator of open government issues this month, the Law Dept. wrote:

“The purpose of this assignment is to assure that the Office speaks consistently and with one voice on open government issues…

“Please … give Kathryn your complete support and cooperation in her efforts to help carry out the Attorney General’s mandate that advocacy for, and enforcement of, the Open Records and Open Meetings Acts be a top priority for the office.”

The mother of two is a former chairman of the Rules Committee of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and former chairman of the Subcommittee of the State Bar to revise the Appellate Practice Act.

Tom Bennett of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is newsletter volunteer for the Ga. First Amendment Foundation and Ga. sunshine chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.