Atlanta City Utilities Briefings Opened to the Public

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city utilities briefing(APN) ATLANTA — The Committee Briefings of the City Utilities Cmte of the City Council of Atlanta are now open to the public, Atlanta Progressive News has confirmed.

As previously reported by APN, for the past several years, all seven Council Committee Briefings have been closed to the public, until in June of this year, when Chairwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) took the lead and decided to open the Finance/Executive Cmte Briefings to the public.

On September 11, 2012, APN asked Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) of the City Utilities Cmte whether she would be willing to open up her briefings to the public.  Archibong stated that, unless she notified APN otherwise, that the next briefing would be open.

APN’s News Editor–the present writer–showed up at the City Council Office before 9am on Tuesday, September 25, 2012, and asked to attend the City Utilities Briefing.  The office receptionist, Lynden Lewis, stated that he was only aware of Finance/Executive Committee Briefings being open, but placed a call to Chairwoman Archibong.  

Archibong escorted the present writer back to the Briefing, which was held in the Large Conference Room, not directly accessible to the public.

Like the Finance/Executive Cmte Briefing, the City Utilities Cmte Briefing was well-attended by members of the Kasim Reed Administration, including Jo Ann Macrina, Commissioner of the Department of Watershed; Lemuel Ward, a city attorney; and about nine others.  In addition, Alfred Berry, Policy Analyst for the Cmte; and Jim Elgar, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Policy Research for Council President Ceasar Mitchell, attended.

Chairwoman Archibong chaired the meeting.  Councilman CT Martin (District 10), a member of the Cmte, attended.  Councilman Alex Wan (District 6), not a member of the Cmte, also attended, apparently because of legislation he had sponsored that was pending before the Cmte.

Unlike the Finance/Executive Cmte Briefing, which lasted about thirty minutes and included substantive discussion of policy matters pending before the Cmte and on the agenda of the Cmte Meeting, the City Utilities Briefing only lasted about five minutes and discussion was limited to procedural matters, such as whether at item would be held or moved forward, or whether amendments or substitutes would be offered.

As previously reported, APN has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy for the last two years to open up the Committee Briefings of the seven Council Committees to the public.

On January 05, 2011, APN co-authored a Citizens’ Wish List or Transparency, Accountability, Public Input, and Ethics at City Council, that included a request that the seven Briefings be opened to the public.

Prior to that, Moore and Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson had explained that the Briefings were only open if there was a quorum of Committee Members at the respective Briefing, and that they were not open if there was not a quorum.

In April 2011, APN learned that in early 2011, that had been several instances where the Briefings did have a quorum.

The Office of the Attorney General of the State of Georgia advised that the City’s practice of holding Briefings with quorums, where they would only be spontaneously opened to the public depending upon how many Council Members showed up, did not comply with the Act’s pre-meeting advertising requirements.

The City’s Department of Law concurred in a series of memos prepared for Council Members and staff.

Since then, upon information and belief, the Committee Chairs had been trying to consistently avoid having a quorum at Briefings altogether.  This presented a practical difficulty of determining which Committee Members would be allowed to attend the Closed-Door Briefing, and which Members would not.  In part, this is why Moore decided to open up her Finance/Executive Cmte Briefings, to allow as many Council Members to attend who wanted to do so, in addition to members of the public.

The present writer thanked and congratulated Archibong during public remarks before the actual City Utilities Cmte Meeting.

Archibong then apologized to Cmte Members for not seeking their opinion on opening up the City Utilities Briefing.  However, as Chair of the Cmte, Archibong has the discretion to make that decision unilaterally, subject to being overridden by a majority of Cmte Members.

“I owe an apology to the Cmte.  I did not understand how public access to the Briefings was supposed to be done, it should have been a public notice and I should have polled the Cmte Members,” Archibong said.

“I just thought, if you want to come, you can come, it’s five minutes, we’re just gonna talk about the orders of the day,” Archibong said.

“So this something for the Cmte to hash out.  If they don’t wanna have the public come, I would defer.  But I will tell you, it is a five minute, orders of the day, what do I have to do as Chair to run the meeting efficiently – that’s the way the Briefings that I have are run,” Archibong said.

“So anybody in the public who wants to hear a five minute discussion on the orders of the day, it seems to me like they can come if they want to, but I would recommend that they get an extra half hour of sleep,” Archibong said.

APN requested that if Cmte Members object to the Briefing being open, that they be required to make those objections publicly and that a public vote be taken.

The five Committees whose Briefings, upon information and belief, remain closed, are: Community Development/Human Resources, chaired by Joyce Sheperd (District 12); Public Safety/Legal Administration, chaired by Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large); Zoning, chaired by Wan; Transportation, chaired by Martin; and Committee on Council, chaired by Yolanda Adrean (District 8).

Bond has told APN that his Public Safety/Legal Administration Cmte Briefings typically consist of meetings between himself and the Cmte staff.  Bond declined to open his Cmte Briefings up to the public because he wants to have the ability to discuss financial and legal matters in private.

Bond believes that Briefings should not essentially be a Cmte Meeting before the Cmte Meeting, as a venue for Cmte Members to discuss agenda items in private; and he has noted that his scaled-down version of Briefings is consistent with the way Briefings were historically held, when he was first on the Council in the 1990’s.

APN has maintained that, under case law Jersawitz v. Fortson (1994), the Briefings are required to be open whether there is a quorum or not, because there are a number of key decisionmakers there and city business is being discussed.  

That was one of the legal questions at issue in the case of Cardinale v. City of Atlanta (2011), which, after an unsuccessful Consent Decree negotiation attempt with the City and Attorney General’s Office, was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice.

The present writer re-filed that case on Friday, September 21, 2012, and it is currently pending before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk.

However, because the attendance at Bond’s Public Safety/Legal Administration Briefing is so scaled-back, APN does not believe it would fall under Jersawitz v. Fortson.

Committee Chairs currently have the discretion to run their Briefings how they like, in terms of what is discussed and who is invited to attend; and whether to even hold Briefings or not.  In fact, APN discovered through an Open Records Act request that there are no City policies, codes, ordinances, etc., that establish the practice of holding such Briefings.

Former Councilman Derrick Boazman (District 12) sent APN an email on August 27, 2012, noting that, as recently as 2001, he recalled the Briefings being open.  APN had previously reported that they’ve been closed for the last twenty years or more, but apparently the condition of openness has changed over time.

“Actually, it was ruled by the city law department back in like 2001 that because there was a quorum of the council present and that public business was in fact being discussed the briefing sessions were indeed subject to the open meeting and record act.  As a member of the council at that time I recall citizens coming to many of the briefings.  So its [sic] not been 20 years [that  they have been closed] n not so historic,” Boazman wrote.

According to one source, it used to be more common for a quorum of respective Cmte Members to attend Cmte Briefings.  However, after the 2001 opinion was issued, quorums became less and less common, as part of a deliberate effort to avoid having to open up the Briefings to the public.

APN noted to Archibong and Elgar that the City Utilities Committee Briefing, which is now open, has not been adequately pre-advertised; and pointed both to a pre-meeting advertisement that Moore had posted for the Finance/Executive Committee Briefing.

APN also pointed out to Archibong and Elgar that the location of the City Utilities Committee Briefing is not pre-advertised on the 2012 COUNCIL COMMITTEES document.

APN also pointed out to Elgar that the location of the Committee Chairs Meeting, that Mitchell holds with the seven Cmte Chairs every two weeks, which is allegedly open, is not pre-advertised in any way.

APN has made an ORA request for a copy of the alleged 2001 Law Department opinion and is awaiting a response.

(END/2012)

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