Attorney General Reprimands Savannah for Non-Quorum Meetings

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(APN) ATLANTA — Attorney General Sam Olens’s office criticized the City Council of Savannah this month for having a series of meetings without quorums, and not allowing the public to attend.

The practices of the Savannah Council are quite similar to practices that the City Council of Atlanta has been engaging in, as documented by Atlanta Progressive News over the last few months.

APN’s News Editor–the present writer–has notified Council President Ceasar Mitchell and others of a possible lawsuit challenging the Atlanta Council for holding several closed-door, private committee briefings every two week committee cycle.

Furthermore, APN has provided the AG’s office with a formal complaint and documentation of the apparent violations involving the City of Atlanta, which mirror those already cited by the AG’s office involving Savannah.  APN has requested to pursue mediation which is available through the AG’s office.

Stefan Ritter, Senior Assistant Attorney General, wrote a letter to Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson and Members of the City Council, on April 01, 2011.

“I am writing to address the serious issues that have been brought to the Office of the Attorney General’s attention regarding the City Council’s alleged failure to comply with Georgia’s Open Meetings Act at its meetings on December 17, 2010, and January 18 and 19, 2011,” Ritter wrote.

“Based on the evidence we have uncovered the Council failed to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the law,” Ritter wrote.

First, the nine member Council met with City Manager candidates in groups of three, in order to avoid having a quorum and having the meeting be open to the public.

Ritter explained that the Georgia Open Meetings Act exempts deliberations regarding personnel matters from being open to the public, but that all exemptions must be viewed narrowly.  Therefore, Ritter said that the receipt of information from City Manager candidates was not a deliberation and was not exempted from openness requirements under the Act.

“On the morning of January 18, 2011, the Council met with candidates for the city manager position in groups of less than a quorum of Council members it called ‘council panels.’  According to some information this Office has received, the ‘council panels’ were specifically created to avoid interviewing the candidates
in public where the interviews could be observed by both citizens and the media,” Ritter wrote.

“Meeting in non-quorum groups to evade the requirements of the Act contravenes both the requirements as well as the purposes of the Act.  There is no exception in the Open Meetings Act for interviews.  The split into non-quorum groups seems to be a tacit recognition of this.  Moreover, the Act provides that meetings of committees of members of an agency where public matters or official business are presented or discussed constitute a ‘meeting,'” Ritter wrote, citing Jersawitz v. Fortson (1994).

Jack Jersawitz–who successfully sued the Atlanta Housing Authority for creating an ad hoc committee consisting of some members of the Board of Commissioners and others, and for holding private meetings–told Atlanta Progressive News he is convinced the City of Atlanta violated the law not only for holding private, closed door commitee briefings that sometimes had a quorum.

He believes, according to the Georgia Supreme Court ruling in his case, that, even when the Atlanta committee briefings did not have a quorum, they were still not allowed to be closed to the public, because public matters and official business that are on the agenda of the committee meeting are being presented and discussed.

As for the City of Savannah, “The repeated violations that occurred in this matter were serious and appear to have been designed to impede the access of the public and the press to information in the hiring of the city manager.  I am, therefore, using this letter to provide notice that future violations of the law in this regard may lead to immediate civil litigation or criminal prosecution by this Office,” Ritter wrote.

“Such action may also result in the invalidation of action taken by the Council, imposition of fines, and the potential recall or removal of the officials involved by the appropriate authority entitled to do so,” Ritter wrote.

Former State Sen. Regina Thomas, who is running for Mayor of Savannah, criticized the current Council and Mayor for having “had more violations than all the mayors and councils put together in the history of Savannah.”

“That’s when you don’t have open and honest government.  That’s when you don’t have transparency in government,” Thomas told Atlanta Progressive News.

“They’re affluent.  These people, they have accomplished much in their life.  And the problem I see, they’ve  been listening to an attorney who’s been giving them bad advice but they’re not reading the law,” Thomas said.

“It seems almost every month there’s another violation.  You can’t continue to accept ignorance for these violations,” she said.

“You’ve got to stop and think, the attorney’s been wrong before, let me check for myself, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing under the letter of the law,” she said.

Ritter sent the City of Savannah a second letter on April 16, 2011, asking twelve questions about another closed meeting that occurred.  In this instance, the Council met to privately approve a flood claim filed by a Council Member.

(END / 2011)

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