Atlanta Council Held Briefings With Quorums, Kept No Minutes

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(APN) ATLANTA — The City Council of Atlanta holds seven private, closed-door Committee briefings every two weeks, and has consistently told members of the public they cannot come in.

Under the current Georgia Open Meetings Act they are allowed to do so if they do not have a quorum of the committee at the briefing.  However, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and House Republicans are attempting to close that loophole in the law through legislation.

Meanwhile, APN has discovered that the City of Atlanta appears to have violated the law several times over the past few months, by holding several closed committee briefings that have had a quorum.

Larry Stokes, Policy Analyst for the Finance/Executive Committee, told APN that those committee briefings may have had a quorum one or two times over the last three months.

Alfred Berry, Policy Analyst for the City Utilities Cmte, told APN that those Cmte briefings have had a quorum several times this year, including the most recent one.

In addition, a third source told APN that Finance/Executive Cmte had had briefings with quorums several times this year.

APN has notified Council President Ceasar Mitchell, Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson, and Committee on Council Chairwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) that it appears the Council has violated the GOMA.

First, the City has been holding Cmte briefings with quorums without keeping minutes.

Second, the City has violated the pre-meeting advertisement violations of the Act.

As for keeping minutes, APN requested under the Georgia Open Records Act a copy of all minutes kept for Cmte briefings, including, but not limited to, those briefings where there was a quorum, for the last three months.

“Although I do not staff the Council Committee briefings, as they are designed for each respective committee’s research and policy analyst and applicable department personnel to ‘brief’ the chair of the committee on items appearing on the next committee meeting’s agenda; I have consulted with each analyst and have been informed that there are no minutes responsive to your request,” Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson wrote in her timely and thorough response to the request.

“Although committee members other than the chair may attend from time to time, a quorum of committee members is not typically present at briefings, nor are any official actions taken by the participants,” she wrote.

Johnson wrote a quorum is “typically” not present; to be sure, if a quorum was never present, Johnson would have stated as such.

Numerous others have corroborated that minutes have not been kept, despite the occurence of quorums.

Deputy Attorney General Stefan Ritter has requested that Olens’s Office be kept informed of the situation involving the City of Atlanta, and APN has been providing information.

As for the pre-meeting advertising requirements, the City does post the time, but not the location, of the briefings on a bulletin board outside City Hall, and the City’s website.  However, at the same time Council Members have been consistently telling members of the public that they are not allowed to attend the meetings.

And as previously reported by APN, senior advocate Cary Duncan was kept out of a meeting by Councilwoman Moore.

So if the City considers the bulletin board posting to be an open meeting advertisement, then members of the public have been prevented from attending meetings that have been advertised as open.

But if the City does not consider the posting to be an open meeting advertisement, then they have failed to advertise meetings that must be open every time there has been a quorum.

Mr. Berry told APN that if ever there was a quorum, that he would place a call to the receptionist of the Council office notifying them to let any member of the public know, if they inquire, that the meeting is now open.  Whether or not there is a quorum at any time is a fluctuating phenomenon from moment to moment, he and others noted.

However, that policy has never been communicated to the public and it is not immediately clear whether it is followed by any other Analysts or Committees.

When asked where does it state on the committee and briefing schedule that the briefings may or may not be open to the public, “It’s written in invisible ink,” Mr. Berry explained.  “Can’t you see it?”

APN requested a copy of any and all pre-meeting advertisements for the Cmte briefings advertising the briefings as open to the public, including, but not limited to, those that would be used to comply with the GOMA.

“Although the Council Committee briefings are a regular and routine occurrence, the annual schedule of committee meetings and briefings is provided to the open meetings file as identified in but not required by the Georgia Open Meetings law at the beginning of each year,” Johnson wrote, adding that it is also posted online, on the bulletin board, and to individuals upon request.

SHOULD BRIEFINGS BE OPEN TO THE PUBLIC?

Council President Mitchell has defended the practice of closed, private briefings when there is less than a quorum.

“I do support Councilmembers’ prerogative to have face to face dialogue with the executive branch, legal counsel and financial advisors in a non-public setting, so long as there is no committee quorum present,” Mitchell wrote in a lengthy statement to APN.

“It is certainly true that these [Council] functions demand and encourage transparency.  However, from time to time, it is quite helpful to allow face to face dialogue between the legislative and executive branches in the presence of only legal counsel and/or financial professionals.  This dialogue often provides an opportunity for Councilmembers to gather important information and advice which if disclosed publicly and in an untimely fashion could result in legal liability, financial loss or the forfeiture of bargaining power for the City,” Mitchell wrote.

However, Attorney General Olens has taken a different view of the use of the tactic of meeting in subsets of a quorum.

Olens’s proposed legislation, which also would ban private briefings, “makes clear that a board cannot evade the law by meeting in subsets that equal less than a quorum,” Olens’s Office said in a press statement.

Olens’s proposed law adds a new category of meeting covered under the Meetings Act: “the gathering of or communications between more than two but less than a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency of persons appointed by those members if the primary purpose of the gathering or communications is to evade or avoid the quorum requirements for conducting a meeting while discussing or conducting official business.”

In addition, the GOMA already provides that Council Members can go into Executive Session if there is the need to discuss something privately.  Council Members appear not to want to be burdened by the minimal requirements of having to justify going into Executive Session, or they want the ability to mix legally protected private discussion with discussion of public business that should be occuring at
the actual Committee meeting.

APN’s News Editor will provide the City a limited opportunity to respond before filing a legal action pursuant to the remedies provided under the GOMA.  If filed, this would be the present writer’s second lawsuit against the City; the secret vote lawsuit is currently docketed in the Supreme Court of Georgia, and is on the schedule for June 2011.

(END / 2011)

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