Closed Transportation Briefing Has Quorum, Tries to Keep Fox 5 Out

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(APN) ATLANTA — The ongoing saga regarding the City Council of Atlanta’s closed-door Committee Briefings has taken a new turn, as the City of Atlanta and four Council Members clearly violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act yesterday, October 29, 2012, by holding a closed Transportation Committee Briefing with a quorum of Cmte Members.

APN’s News Editor currently has a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court, before Judge Henry Newkirk, regarding the City’s practice of holding closed-door Cmte Briefings and other closed meetings, in addition to other open records violations.  The City has not yet replied to the suit, which was filed on September 21, 2012.

In April of 2011, APN had reported that the seven closed-door Committee Briefings that occur every two weeks sometimes had had quorums, despite being closed, in clear violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.  The Office of the Attorney General agreed with APN’s position.  Even the Law Department of the City of Atlanta concurred, in a series of confidential memos later obtained and published by Atlanta Progressive News.

Since then, or so APN believed in good faith, the Council Members were ensuring that the Cmte Briefings were not having quorums if they were going to be closed to the public.  [APN also maintains that the Cmte Briefings are required to be open, even when there are not quorums, as will be discussed further below, but the City’s Law Department seems to disagree on that point.]

And yet, Morse Diggs of Fox 5 News tells APN that the closed Transportation Briefing yesterday, had a quorum of Committee Members present, including Chairman CT Martin (District 10), Yolanda Adrean (District 8), Felicia Moore (District 9), and Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11).

Even though the meeting was closed to the public, Chairman Martin apparently allowed for Kelly Yamanouchi, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) newspaper to attend, as if she were on the VIP list.

But when Diggs attempted to attend the meeting, he was originally not allowed in.  After making a bit of a scene, Diggs was allowed in, but then Martin did not want to allow Fox 5 to videotape the meeting.

At some point, a team of lawyers from the Law Department came in and removed the Council Members from the room to have a private meeting with them, in which they were apparently informed–or, reminded–that they could not have a quorum in a closed meeting.

Eventually, the meeting resumed with the Fox 5 video rolling, but without the quorum.

In the closed meeting, Cmte Members held a substantive discussion concerning scandals involving procurement of limousine services at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Fox 5 reported that Martin accused Moore of “grandstanding” because she wanted to allow Fox 5 to film the Transportation Briefing.

“I’ve heard her say out of her mouth, I don’t want to hear that in my office, I want to hear that on cameras, so now we have cameras,” Martin said at the Briefing.

Diggs told APN that Martin also said during the closed Briefing that he would be polling the Cmte Members whether or not to do away with the Transportation Cmte Briefings completely.  [Use of the word “poll” notwithstanding, a formal recorded vote is, of course, required for such a decision, under the Act.]

“Cause I don’t intend to go through this junk no more like this,” Martin said, according to the Fox 5 video.

As previously reported by APN, Chairwoman Moore opened up her Finance/Executive Cmte Briefings in June 2012, after issuing a memo stating that she wanted to be able to have a quorum of Cmte Members be able to attend the Cmte Briefings, in addition to the public.

In recent weeks, Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) opened up her City Utilities Cmte Briefings to the public.

According to Chairman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), Public Safety/Legal Administration Cmte does not have a Briefing.

However, to APN’s knowledge, Committee on Council, Community Development/Human Resources, Transportation, and Zoning are still closed.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act was recently amended to allow for citizens to seek criminal misdemeanor fines against individual agency officials for violations of the Act in civil courts.  Also, the fines were recently increased, and the standard of violation was lowered from a knowing and willful violation, to a reckless violation.

Even so, it is clear that Chairman Martin knowingly and willfully violated the Act by conducting a closed meeting with a quorum, in violation of the Act, especially when he has stated publicly previously that he is familiar with the rules concerning quorums and open meetings.  Martin stated this during last year’s redistricting hearings, when discussing Council Members’ rationale for meeting three members at a time to discuss redistricting maps in private.

APN’s News Editor is considering amending the current complaint, or filing a new complaint, to cover the new violation, in which misdemeanor fines may be sought.  The Council Members who participated in yesterday’s closed Briefing with a quorum, in violation of the Act, could also named in such an action.  

Of course, should future Cmte Briefings of the Transportation Cmte be opened to the public, whether they have a quorum or not; or, alternatively, should future Transportation Cmte Briefings be scaled back to where they’re attendance mirrors that of Public Safety/Legal Administration’s “non-Briefings,”–which are merely attended by the Chairman of the Cmte, the Chairman’s Chief of Staff, and the Policy Analyst–APN’s Editor would feel less of an appetite to seek such individual fines.

APN has previously reported on a memo issued last year by Council President Ceasar Mitchell, in which he explained why he believed Cmte Chairs should have the discretion to hold closed-door Cmte Briefings, so long as a quorum is not present.

In that memo, Mitchell stated that he believed they should be closed because sensitive financial or legal matters may be discussed.  Of course, that argument is problematic because the venue for certain confidential matters to be discussed under the Act is Executive Session, not closed-door Cmte Briefings.

Even so, yesterday’s episode undermines Mitchell’s substantive reasoning.  After all, if the matters being discussed are so private, why allow two reporters–Yamanouchi and Diggs–in?  The hypocritical nature of allowing some special reporters in, but not the public, suggests that the real reason the Briefings are closed is because certain Council Members have disdain and contempt for ordinary citizens.

The Council’s current scheme regarding these Briefings–which is for some Briefings to be open, some to be closed, but each to be advertised–presents a confusing and complicated puzzle to members of the public, at best.

There is a document that lists the members of each Cmte, the dates and times of each Cmte Meeting, and the dates and times of each Cmte Briefing.  It is not immediately clear why the Council would advertise the dates and times of Cmte Briefings, even when they are closed to the public.  

In any event, for years, the location of the Briefings were still not listed.

After Moore opened up the Finance/Executive Cmte Briefings to the public, and upon APN’s request, Mitchell’s office amended the document to list the location of the Finance Briefings.

Then, after Archibong opened City Utilities Briefings to the public, APN requested of Mitchell’s office to amend the document to include that Briefing location.  That did not immediately happen.

However, after the filing of the recent lawsuit, Mitchell’s office did again amend the document to simply state across the top that all Cmte Briefings are held in the Large Conference Room [which is, of course, behind the closed doors of the Council Office, and citizens have to be allowed and escorted in]; and to note that Public Safety/Legal Administration does not have a Briefing [even though the dates and times of the Briefings that allegedly do not occur are still listed].

Also, as previously reported by APN, former Councilman Derrick Boazman told APN that he recalled the Law Department issuing a ruling in 2001 that the Briefings had to be open.  APN has been trying to track down that ruling to no avail as of yet.

APN made an Open Records request to Kristen Denius, a city attorney, for a copy of any such ruling on September 27, 2012.  However, Denius did not respond until October 06, after APN sent a follow-up request.  This is yet another Open Records Act violation by the City of Atlanta, seeing as how the Act requires an initial response within three business days.

As previously noted, the lawsuit also argues that the Briefings are supposed to be open, whether they have a quorum of Cmte Members or not, under case law Jersawitz v. Fortson.

Tomorrow’s vote at Transportation Cmte, on whether or not to do away with Transportation Briefings, could be quite significant, as Martin is the most senior member of the Council and has watched the scope and purpose of the Cmte Briefings evolve over the years into what they are today.

According to Councilman Bond, the Briefings were originally started as a way for the Chair of the Cmte to be briefed of the issues on the agenda of the upcoming Cmte Meeting, and procedural concerns related to those issues, so the Chair could run the Cmte Meeting more efficiently.

In fact, they were originally called Committee Chairs’ Briefings [a term that has more recently come to refer to a different meeting held with the Council President every two weeks].

Today, they have evolved into, in most cases, small villages of Administration and Council officials and staff packed into a conference room to pre-discuss substantive matters in private, that are on the agenda of the respective Cmte Meetings.

APN argues that because of their substantive discussions and the scope of attendance by key decisionmakers, that the Briefings fall under Jersawitz v. Fortson, and therefore have to be open whether there is a quorum of Cmte Members at the Briefings or not.

In any event, APN will continue to fight for our readers’ rights to participate in the democratic process by being afforded access to meetings that are being held to discuss public policy issues in their name.

(END/2012)

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