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May 9 - GA Attorney General Corrects City Council

By Clark Byron

May 9 – Georgia Attorney General Samuel S. Olens addressed a pre-meeting workshop with the Savannah City Council this past Thursday. The topic was the Georgia Open Meetings and Open Records Acts, better known to most as Sunshine Laws.

Sunshine Laws lay out specific requirements local governments must meet in order to assure public transparency in decision-making.

The workshop came at the request of Mayor Otis Johnson, according to Olens. However, the Attorney General expressed deep concerns over longtime practices of the Savannah City Council relating to how major decisions are made. “I would suggest to you that some of the problems that have been in the [local] press could have been handled in a more timely and positive manner than they have been,” said Olens. “We are going throughout the state because the complaints [from citizens] are constant, the violations are constant, and good government requires that governments comply with the Sunshine Laws.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter, who has been handling open meetings issues for years, presented on the details of Georgia Sunshine laws for the bulk of the meeting, illustrating in general terms how these laws are routinely violated by city governments. “Our mediation program receives [from around the state] in excess of 200 complains a year,” said Ritter. “We may be on track this year to get 400.” Ritter went on to say that it is important the public be able to see what goes on in government. “What the public is telling me is that they think your meetings are closed and they are not able to hear what’s going on.”

Ritter used the Georgia AG’s 2008 publication, A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government (also known as ‘The Red Book’) as the basis for his presentation on Georgia Sunshine Laws. “We are going to take a more aggressive approach,” said Ritter. “If we find recurrent violations . . . we will go to court.”

Ritter and Olens explained that whenever more than two city council members converse about city business, such an exchange is considered a meeting under the law and is therefore subject to all regulations pertaining to open meetings. These include 24 hours prior written notice to the public, the pre-publication of a meeting agenda, an opportunity for the public to attend that meeting, and the keeping of public minutes. Under the law, council members are not permitted to discuss city business, whether in person or in writing, without the public having access to those discussions as they happen, as well as after the fact. This includes conversations that do not involve votes or official actions.

“There is no way we are going to be able to socialize as we did in the past,” said the Mayor, “and perhaps that’s alright.” Johnson went on to say that the council has erred and that the AG’s office has come to tell them so.

Ritter said his office is pursuing two issues with the city. One is how the selection of the city manager, Rochelle Small-Toney, was conducted. City Council members claim that Mayor Otis Johnson instructed them to form teams of three to conduct closed interviews of candidates for the city manager position – a direct violation of the state’s open meetings law. The other is a decision to pay a $50,000 settlement for flood damage at the Baldwin Park home of Alderwoman Mary Osborne in April. That decision was made in a closed session of the council. “We believe they violated the open meetings act,” said Ritter.

New legislation is underway in Atlanta that is intended to put more teeth into the state’s Open Meetings and Records statutes. House Bill 397 is designed to get rid of the gray areas and step up the severity of the consequences for violations, according to Olens. Hearings on HB 397 begin this summer, with a vote expected in early 2012.

A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government is available free of charge from the Georgia Attorney General’s office or at the AG’s website at: http://www.gfaf.org/resources/sunshine_laws.pdf.

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