In case you hadn’t noticed, Georgia has a new Attorney General. Republican Sam Olens, a fixture in Cobb County politics for many years as Chairman of the County Commission, took the reins of this powerful but often little-known office in January.
The person who occupies this constitutional office has wide-ranging responsibilities that affect virtually every citizen in the state. If the hand-off from one attorney general to the next is rocky, the ripples can reverberate through the courts and state government for years to come. Thankfully, this most recent transition was a smooth one; in the words of Sam Olens, a “gentlemanly” transfer of power from his predecessor, Thurbert Baker.
The décor in this small but strategically-placed office in the judicial building directly across the street from the State Capitol is vintage 1960s – with faux grass-cloth wall paper, and carpeting sporting coffee stains probably going back to the Talmadge era – Gene Talmadge, that is. However, it is not the furnishings from which the state attorney general draws his power, but the black-bound law books that line the shelves behind what is now Sam Olens’ desk.
It is Olens’ clear intent to use those law books and the 125 or so lawyers who labor under him, in a decidedly pro-active manner. Already, just three months into his tenure, Olens has been a legal whirling dervish; providing legal input to legislators drafting all manner of legislation, some of which may appear in those very code books behind his desk later this year. Olens, however, clearly understands the fine line between legal advice – his bailiwick; and policy — not his concern.
He clearly understands that answering questions and offering advice while legislation is still being formulated, may save the state legal headaches and possibly a great deal of money in unnecessary litigation down the road.
In a further testament to Olens’ concern for continuing the non-partisan tradition of his office, there have been almost no personnel changes since he took command. He is worried, however, that the tight budget he faces, which curtails his ability to match salaries offered attorneys by other state agencies, will deprive his staff of seasoned lawyers.
Transparency is a major force driving Olens in state government just as it was during his tenure as Cobb Commission chair. His mission is clear when Olens first ticks off his priorities – “open records” and “open meetings” for all governmental entities in Georgia tops the list; with all votes public and recorded. In this thirst for openness, Olens practices what he preaches. Not only is the front door into his cramped suite of offices continuously open, but unless there is a sensitive case or legal matter to discuss, so is the door leading directly to his private office.
He practices a degree of frugality not always evident among government officials, even in these lean economic times. He drives himself to work in his own car; and when forced to furlough employees already this year, he includes himself in those sacrifices. He laments, however, that his office’s budget is so slim he is forced (like his predecessors) to outsource some of the legal work presented his office handling matters for other agencies; costs that ultimately must be borne by other agencies and wind up costing Georgia taxpayers in the long run.
His use of the Internet to publicize what his office is doing already is causing a buzz; but the importance of letting the people of Georgia know what their “law firm” is doing, immunizes Olens to any charges he might be using publicity for personal aggrandizement.
With major decisions of historic importance looming – including the “water wars” litigation and the challenge to “ObamaCare” – there will be plenty to keep this new Attorney General busy and in the news for years to come. And Sam Olens will make certain we know about it.
by Bob Barr, The Barr code