APN Editor Sues City of Atlanta for Closed-Door Briefings
(APN) ATLANTA — The News Editor for the Atlanta Progressive News–the present writer–has filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta, to bring openness, public access, and transparency to the City Council of Atlanta’s seven closed-door, private Committee Briefings which occur every two weeks.
The case number is 2011CV200639 and is before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter.
The named Defendants are the City of Atlanta as well as seven Council Members who serve as Committee Chairs: Yolanda Adrean, Natalyn Archibong, C.T. Martin, Felicia Moore, Joyce Sheperd, and Ivory Young.
The Defendants will receive service through the court, but APN has already provided the City Attorney’s Office with a courtesy copy.
The Committee Briefings take place prior to the Committee Meetings, but the public is routinely not allowed in.
At these briefings, Council Members, Executive Branch officials, and others discuss matters of official City business that are on the agenda of the Committee Meeting.
Essentially, it is a way for Council Members to ask questions confidentially about controversial matters.
The City of Atlanta has been engaging in this practice for many years, according to current and former City employees who have spoken with APN. One former Council staff person told APN that the Council used to be very deliberate about never having a quorum so that, in their mind, the Committee Briefing did not count as a meeting under the Georgia Open Meetings Act and the public could be shut out.
However, in recent years the Committee Briefings have become more sloppy about sometimes having a quorum; of course the public had no way of knowing whether there would be a quorum or not, so they were effectively shut out at all times.
As previously reported by APN, various Council staff members, including Policy Analysts for the various Committees, admitted to APN that there have occasionally been quorums in recent months.
This means that even under the City of Atlanta’s own legal position–that the Committee Briefings can be closed if there is no quorum–they have violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act by not allowing in the public when they have had quorums, failing to properly pre-advertise the meeting, not posting an agenda, and not keeping minutes.
However, the present writer argues in the lawsuit that the Committee Briefings must always be open, even when there is not a quorum.
Atlanta activist Jack Jersawitz won an important case in 1994 against the Atlanta Housing Authority, Jersawitz v. Fortson, that applies here.
In Jersawitz v. Fortson, the court ruled that an ad hoc committee containing a subset of the AHA Board of Commissioners could not meet privately, if they were discussing official business of the Board, even if the subset of the Board that was meeting did not make up a quorum of the entire Board.
Based on this ruling, the City of Atlanta’s Council Committees cannot delegate their authority to discuss public matters to those attending a Committee Briefing by intentionally maintaining less than a quorum of Committee Members at the Committee Briefing, in an effort to keep out the public.
Moreover, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens recently reprimanded the City of Savannah for doing almost the same thing.
The City Council of Savannah met with City Manager candidates three Council Members at a time for the purpose of evading a quorum to keep out the public. Olens warned the City of Savannah to not let it happen again.
Olens’s Office, including Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter, has been following the Atlanta Committee Briefings with interest, as well. Olens’s office is currently reviewing the case that was filed Monday.
In a blog post about the lawsuit published late Monday on the Fulton County Daily Report newspaper’s blog, Dexter Chambers, spokesperson for the Council, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The next steps will be for the City and seven Council Members to be served, and then for the Defendants to reply.
In the complaint filed Monday, the present writer seeks Declaratory and Injunctive Relief; that is, for the court to declare that the City violated the law, and for the court to enjoin the City from doing it again.
In addition, the complaint asks for the seven named Council Members to be fined five hundred dollars each on a misdemeanor charge, for willfully and knowingly conducting and participating in a closed meeting in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Council President Ceasar Mitchell did not respond to an offer to mediate the matter out of court.
This is the second legal action against the City of Atlanta filed by the present writer, in the interest of openness, transparency, and meaningful opportunities for public participation in local government.
The first case, which involved the Council’s secret vote of February 2010, is pending in the Georgia Supreme Court, awaiting a decision on a Petition for Certiorari filed by the present writer.
Atlanta Progressive News will continue to keep readers informed on the progress of both cases.
(END / 2011)