Moore Opens Up Atlanta’s Finance Briefings to Citizens

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(APN) ATLANTA — Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9), a strong progressive leader and champion of oversight on the City Council of Atlanta, has opened up her Finance/Executive Committee Briefings for members of the public to attend, Atlanta Progressive News confirmed today.  The move is yet another victory for transparency for the citizens and taxpayers of Atlanta.

Earlier today, Monday August 27, 2012, the present writer attended the Finance Briefing held at 10:30am in the Large Conference Room.  Citizen advocate Ron Shakir also attended.  Because the Large Conference Room is not directly accessible to the public, members of the public who wish to attend Briefings apparently have to go to the Council Office and ask to be let into the Briefing.

It is APN’s understanding that most if not all Briefings of the Council’s seven Committees have been closed to the public for at least twenty years, so Moore’s act of opening up her Briefings is quite significant and historic.

APN first raised concerns regarding the closed Committee Briefings during remarks before the Committee on Council on January 03, 2011.  APN’s Editor then filed litigation on May 16, 2011, challenging the practice of holding such closed Briefings, both when such Briefings contain a quorum of respective Committee Members as well as when they do not.

Incidentally, that litigation–which also addresses a number of other Open Meetings and Open Records violations by the City of Atlanta–was dismissed without prejudice earlier this year and will be refiled within the first few weeks of September 2012.

As far as we know, the six other Council Committees–City Utilities, Committee on Council, Community Development/Human Resources, Public Safety/Legal Administration, Transportation, and Zoning–remain closed to the public.  The Chairpersons of those Committees are, respectively, Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Yolanda Adrean (District 8), Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), CT Martin (District 10), and Alex Wan (Post 2-at-large).

Moore first announced that her Finance Briefings would be open to the public in a memo to other Council members dated June 27, 2012.

“After attending a session on the revisions to the Open Meeting Act, this is the course I am choosing to take with my committee briefings:,” Moore wrote.

“Please be advised, that starting today, all briefings of the Finance Executive Committee will be noticed as an ‘official meeting.’  This will allow all members of the Finance/Executive Committee the opportunity to participate in the briefing, as well as open the meeting to the public.  Also, any members not on the committee are also free to participate,” Moore wrote, copying Kristen Denius, a city attorney.

The document, “2012 COUNCIL COMMITTEES – Membership, Meetings/Briefings Schedule,” however, has not been updated since January 13, 2012.  For at least the last two years, the Schedule has listed the time and date of all seven Briefings, even though all seven used to be closed to the public and six still are.  No notation has been added to identify the Finance Briefing, however, as an official meeting or as a meeting that is open to the public.

In addition, the location of the meeting is still not advertised, so that if citizens do not somehow know to go to the Council Office and be let into the Large Conference Room, they have no way of knowing where the meeting is being held.  The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires pre-meeting advertising that includes the location of the meeting.  

It is also not immediately clear whether minutes and agendas of the Finance Briefing are being kept; this is also something that is required under the Act for all open meetings.

APN first raised the concern regarding the Committee Briefings after Councilman Wan kept making references during Committee Meetings to discussions that had occurred in Briefings, questions he had asked in Briefings, and answers he had received in Briefings.

It became apparent to APN and citizen advocates such as Ben Howard that the Briefings were a vehicle for Council Members and members of the Kasim Reed Administration to discuss official business in private, raising the concern that the public Committee Meetings are merely the ceremonial process for adopting decisions that had essentially already been made in private.

At today’s Briefing, APN counted thirty-six individuals who appeared to be part of the Reed Administration in attendance, including Peter Andrews, City Attorney; George Dusenbury, Park and Recreation Commissioner; Jo Ann Macrina, Watershed Commissioner; Katrina Taylor-Parks, Chief of Staff for the Mayor; Leslie Ward, City Auditor; and Yvonne Yancy, Human Resources Commissioner.  Alfred Berry, a Policy Analyst who works for the Council, was also in attendance.

APN witnessed as substantive policy issues were discussed.  Moore read down a list of numbered items, one by one, that appeared to mirror many of the numbered items on the Finance Committee agenda.

On one item, Moore asked Macrina questions about a sole source contract to convert grease from restaurants into fuel.  “I want an understanding of the sole source nature of this… there’s more than one company that does this,” Moore said, also requesting a copy of the contract to be presented at the Finance Committee meeting.

APN’s concern about the Briefings originally went from a democratic concern to a legal one in April 2011, when APN learned that some closed Committee Briefings had had quorums of Committee Members, a clear violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Following an APN article in April 2011, Moore requested the City of Atlanta’s Department of Law respond to the concerns raised by APN.  The Law Department authored a number of memos regarding the Briefings, in which they advised Council Members, among other things, to make sure not to have a quorum of Committee Members at the Committee Briefings.

Another issue is that, prior to that, the City had been taking the position that the Briefings would be open when there was a quorum but would not be open if there was no quorum, and that it would all depend on how many Council Members show up, which could not be determined at least until the meeting started or was in progress.  The Law Department also advised in the memos that such an approach violated the Act because open meetings have to be advertised at least twenty-four hours in advance, and this is impossible to comply with if the openness is not determined until after the meetings starts.

In any event, in August 2011, APN obtained the memos, which were marked Attorney-Client Privilege documents, from a confidential source, and published articles about them.  

On August 12, 2011, the City obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent APN from further writing about the memos until a hearing could be held on a permanent restraining order.  However, the Peach Pundit blog, who had already obtained the memos, published them, and the City withdrew their motion and the TRO became moot.  Despite all the legal threats, APN has maintained the confidentiality of the source to this day.

Earlier, Jack Jersawitz, an Atlanta activist who won a pro se Open Meetings lawsuit before the Court of Appeals of Georgia against the Atlanta Housing Authority in 1994, notified APN that the Jersawitz ruling would apply to the closed Briefings even when there was not a quorum of Committee Members.  APN agreed with Jersawitz’s assessment.

In the Spring of 2011, APN approached Stefan Ritter in the Office of Attorney General of Georgia Sam Olens and brought the issue of the Briefings to their attention.  Soon after, the AG’s Office threatened to bring an enforcement action against the City of Atlanta if the City did not enter into a Consent Decree with them.

Originally the AG’s office agreed with APN and Jersawitz that the Jersawitz v. Fortson ruling applied to the closed Briefings even when there was not a quorum of Committee Members.  However, at some point, the AG’s office changed its position on the matter.

As previously reported by APN, the AG’s Office, the City, and the present writer entered into discussions regarding a possible Consent Decree.  However after a lengthy good faith negotiation, APN rejected the Decree, which proposed, among other things, that the City agree never to have quorums of Committee Members at any of their Briefings.  APN wanted to preserve the flexibility of Chairpersons to allow a quorum of Committee Members at their Briefings, so long as the Briefings were open to the public.  

So, ironically, if APN had agreed to the Decree–which would have constrained the City of Atlanta beyond the requirements of the Act–Moore would not have able to open up her Briefings to all seven members of the Finance Committee, as she has done while opening them also up to the public in the process.

Today, APN asked Councilman Bond, who was previously on the Council in the 1990s before getting elected again in 2009, whether he would open up his Public Safety Briefings.

“I don’t have Briefings,” Bond told APN, later clarifying that he conducts Briefings intermittently, but that they only typically consist of himself, and the Policy Analyst and the Secretary for the Committee.

Bond noted that Committee Briefings originated as a meeting consisting of the Chair, the Vice Chair, the Analyst, and the Secretary, primarily so that the Chair could get up to speed on everything that would be occurring in the meetings.  He said that they were already going on as early as 1993, when he was previously on Council, meaning they have been in existence for at least twenty years.

In 1998, former Councilman Jim Maddox passed a resolution calling for Executive Branch officials to participate in Briefings.  

Over time since then, the Briefings have apparently evolved into what they are today: a standing-room only event where a small village of legislative and executive branch officials gather to pre-discuss the items on the agenda of the Committee Meeting itself.

However, the practice of holding briefings is not codified in any Council rules.  On February 27, 2012, APN requested any records from the Office of the Municipal Clerk regarding any official Council policies or procedures which establish the practice of holding Committee Briefings; however, the Clerk’s response revealed there are none.

Also, on May 21, 2011, the Atlanta Planning and Advisory Board (APAB) took an interest in the issue of the closed-door Committee Briefings.  APAB voted to send a letter to Moore asking for a copy of the agendas of the Briefings, so they could learn more about what goes on at the Briefings.  On July 25, 2011, Moore replied that the Committee Meeting agendas also serve as their respective Committee Briefing agendas, a position that APN has challenged.

Ben Howard, Chairman of the APAB Committee on Committee on Council, says he is thrilled that Moore has opened up the Finance Briefings, and will be offering a resolution to APAB to commend her for doing so.  Howard hopes that all other six Chairpersons will follow in Moore’s lead and open up their Briefings as well.

(END/2012)

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