Watson, Winslow Disclose Secret Votes, 7 Still Unknown
(APN) ATLANTA — City Council Members Cleta Winslow (District 4) and Aaron Watson (Post 2-at-large) reported how they voted during the secret vote held at the Council Retreat in February 2010, in emails and phone conversations with Atlanta Progressive News.
As previously reported by APN, Council Members voted on whether to draft rules limiting public comment in all Council Committees, but decided not to do so; however, neither the vote breakdown nor those voting against the proposal were listed as required under the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Winslow had been sick with asthma the past week, she told Atlanta Progressive News on Friday, May 07, so she had not checked her email. Winslow said she voted no, against drafting new rules to limit public comment in every Committee.
Winslow said she already felt that public participation in committee meetings was low, usually consisting of only a few people, and that the Council should let them speak. She said when she was Chair of the Public Safety/Legal Administration Committee, she would let people speak as long as they needed to “99.9 percent of the time,” except in one case where a man started cursing.
Winslow said that limiting public comment would cause more trouble than it was worth. She also said she felt that the public tended to scrutinize Council Members more than other Atlanta-area governmental bodies, such as the School Board or the Fulton County Commission, and urged APN and others to spread the scrutiny.
APN called Watson’s office Friday, May 07, to see if he received APN’s emails. Staff person Nick Juliano–a former student and activist at Emory University previously featured in APN–said we had used the wrong email address [email@example.com, when it really is firstname.lastname@example.org].
Watson’s Chief of Staff, Jill Strickland Luse, sent the following statement from Watson to APN: “I appreciate your interest in keeping our government transparent and honest by questioning the activities of the Atlanta City Council during its retreat held last February. At the retreat, I indicated that I would support each council member having the authority to limit public comments during committee meetings.”
APN followed up with Luse in a phone conversation, clarifying that all committees currently have discretion to set rules, and asking whether Watson’s vote was a yea vote to draft rules affecting all Committees. Luse said yes.
Luse added in a voicemail that Watson is the Chair of Zoning Committee, where the public is not allowed to comment on zoning matters because such comments are only allowed before the Zoning Review Board by law. Watson supported the right of Council Members to limit public comment in their committees as well, Luse said.
So far, that means six Members have reported nay notes; two Members have reported yea votes; and seven Members have not disclosed their votes voluntarily.
In addition to Winslow, Council Members Kwanza Hall (District 1), Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Felicia Moore (District 9), C.T. Martin (District 10), and Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) each told APN that they voted to keep the current rules in place, which allow each Committee to set its own rules governing public comment. Only one committee, Community Development/Human Resources (CD/HR), currently has any limit.
“I supported the continuation of our current practice of allowing each committee to exercise discretion,” Councilwoman Archibong wrote.
“I would like to thank you for your email. I voted no… [or] to continue to allow discretion to each Cmte. If you have any questions or concerns please contact me at 404-330-6055,” Councilman Martin wrote.
Councilman Kwanza Hall’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Jay Tribbi, responded on Saturday: “Thanks for your e-mail. Kwanza reports that he voted, with Felicia and Michael, not to change the current procedure of leaving things to the discretion of each committee.”
Council Member Michael Julian Bond had told APN in a phone interview that he voted to keep the current rules in place. “I voted to support public comment,” he added in an email. Councilwoman Felicia Moore stated during a Committee on Council meeting that she did the same.
In addition to Watson, the other Member reporting a yea vote is Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 8).
Neighborhood Planning Unit R had asked for Bottoms to report how she voted; on May 05, they followed up on their request for information, according to Ben Howard, Senior Advocate.
Bottoms told NPU-R that she voted yes, to draft rules limiting public comment in every Committee, making her the first Member to admit to doing so publicly.
“Yes, that is correct. As Mr. Howard may have told you, I shared my reasoning with the NPU,” Bottoms told APN in response to an email seeking confirmation.
“As a new member of Council, I have been concerned about the efficiency of our meetings. I have often observed that when our meetings spill over into other Committee times, the public and City employees, including department heads, are left waiting. As a tax payer, I have often wondered how much money is lost during this idle time,” Bottoms said.
However, there is no reason why Committee meetings should be scheduled on the same day, even creating the possibility of a time conflict or overlap, when there are only seven committees but ten days available in the two week committee cycle.
“Public input is essential. I also believe that structure is vital to the efficient handling of the public’s business. Just as we have time parameters in full Council for members and the public, I think it’s appropriate for Committee meetings as well,” Bottoms said.
Seven members have not stated publicly yet how they voted. The “Secretive Seven” include Carla Smith (District 1), Ivory Young (District 3), Alex Wan (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), Yolanda Adrean (District 8), Joyce Sheperd (District 12), and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large).
APN sent an email on Friday, April 30, 2010, requesting information from each Member individually regarding how they voted. APN also sent a follow-up email on May 04.
It is noteworthy that the vast majority of Members who have disclosed their votes were individuals who did not want to set additional rules limiting public comment in every Committee. The fact that only one of the Members who wanted to set the restrictions has spoken up suggests that this was indeed perceived as a controversial vote that these Members wanted to make privately and not face public scrutiny.
Previously, Moore, the Chairperson of the Committee on Council, told APN that she and Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson refused to ask the Members how they voted, in order to revise the minutes to bring them into compliance with the Georgia OMA.
Moore received a legal opinion from Acting City Attorney Peter Andrews stating that the City had not broken the law because it was not a roll-call vote.
However, the Georgia OMA states: “In the case of a roll-call vote the name of each person voting for or against a proposal shall be recorded and in all other cases it shall be presumed that the action taken was approved by each person in attendance unless the minutes reflect the name of the persons voting against the proposal or abstaining.”
“The ‘goal’ of asking the law department’s opinion was to get a legal opinion. One was received and you [the present writer] got a copy of it. I’m sorry you were disappointed,” Moore wrote in an email to APN.
“Neither I nor the Clerk will be asking members how they voted,” Moore wrote.
“Perhaps your lawsuit will help you reach your ‘goal.’ I have no need to further discuss this issue with you,” Moore wrote.
APN has already drafted a lawsuit seeking Declaratory and Injunctive Relief from Fulton County Superior Court and is preparing to file within the coming days. APN is consulting with various attorneys and community members regarding the case.
The Georgia OMA specifies that individuals who participated in a closed meeting–broadly defined–can be subject to a misdemeanor charge under the law and a fine up to five hundred dollars.
“OCGA § 50-14-6. Violation of chapter; penalty Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00,” the law states.
According to a paralegal in Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s Office, it is up to the judge to decide whether or not a misdemeanor occurred; the Solicitor would not get involved in an open meetings case.
APN is preparing to sue the City of Atlanta as a whole, as well as any and all individuals who participated in the secret vote, including all Council Members [with the exception of Archibong, Bond, Bottoms, Hall, Martin, Watson, and Winslow].
APN had provided all Council Members until Wednesday, May 05, to disclose how they voted, in order to be excused from the lawsuit as a Defendant [the offer was not made to Moore because she was involved in the decisions to not record the votes nor amend the minutes].
Seeing as how the remaining individual Members have not provided information about how they voted, it appears that they want their votes to be a secret and that they were in full agreement with the secretive character of the vote that was held.
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