Atlanta Watershed Withheld Records Requested by APN in 2015
The City of Atlanta employee who initially received the request, Lillian Govus, is part of a separate Open Records Act violation incident that is currently being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
Govus, who no longer works for the City and now lives in Oregon, recently was the subject of reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper and Channel 2 WSBTV television news regarding apparent efforts by her and another City of Atlanta employee, former City spokesperson Jenna Garland, to deliberately obstruct access to open records.
When the AJC requested records pertaining to Watershed’s billing of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s brother, Garland advised Govus, via text: “So I would be as unhelpful as possible. Drag this out as long as possible. And provide information in the most confusing format possible.”
“Finally! An easy request!” Govus replied, later laughing in the text.
In 2015, when the present reporter made an open records request, at stake were critical facts about the City’s alleged justification for its efforts to take the homes of several Peoplestown families by eminent domain, including the home of Mattie Jackson, who at the time–three years ago–was 93 and is now 95.
The City at the time was claiming that it was necessary to take Ms. Jackson’s home to address flooding in the neighborhood. However, Atlanta Progressive News reported that an architectural report by Gresham Smith showed there was an alternative way to address the flooding.
On September 09, 2015, Govus, then-Director of the Department of Watershed Management, posted a comment on the APN website: “The report you cite at the end of the story was found not to be feasible years ago and wouldn’t alleviate the flooding in Miss Mattie’s backyard.”
Shortly thereafter, then-Mayor Kasim Reed agreed not to take Jackson’s house as long as she was living in it, but the City still proceeded against two homeowners including Tanya Washington, and Robert and Bertha Darden.
On Sept. 09, 2015, the present writer wrote Govus: “Pursuant to the ORA, can you pls provide any and all documents that you rely upon when making the following comment on the Atlanta Progressive News website,” then referencing Govus’s comment posted to the APN website.
On the same day, Govus responded with a lengthy narrative explaining her comment, but not providing a legally-required response to the request for records.
“I appreciate your answers and timeliness. Can you pls process my ORA request?” the present writer replied.
“Sure thing! Copying Sue Ross now who handles ORRs – she’ll be in touch,” Govus wrote on Sept. 09, a Wednesday. Susan Ross at the time held the Open Records Coordination position for the Department of Watershed Management.
Govus waited until Sept. 14, the following Monday, to forward the request to Ms. Ross.
On Sept. 15, 2015, Ross responded, one business day late, per the three business day requirement for initial responses under the Act, O.C.G.A. 50-18-70(f).
“The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM) has received your Open Records request,” Ross wrote on the fourth business day.
“Please confirm that you are looking for any documents upon which Lillian Govus, speaking on behalf of the DWM, relied upon in making the following statement,” Ross wrote, citing the comment on APN.
“DWM is in the process of assembling the documentation which is responsive to your request. There is no one document which can be cited. It is estimated that it will take 2 weeks to compile various minutes, emails, modeling runs, etc., that were used to evaluate the proposals/options presented in the Feasibility Report,” Ross wrote.
“As soon as the documents are compiled, we will contact you,” Ross wrote.
“Yes, confirmed,” the present reporter sent in an email confirming the request on the same date.
It has now been approximately two and a half years since Ross said the City had begun assembling the response, which was supposed to take two weeks. This lack of a final response is a violation of O.C.G.A. 50-18-70(f) as well.
It appears at some point the City made a decision to stop assembling the information responsive to the request.
APN reached out on March 20, 2018, to the City Law Department to see if they had any additional information, and we have not received a response.
Today, APN confirmed with the Municipal Clerk’s Office that the Clerk logged the Sept. 15, 2015 response from Susan Ross, but no further response or communication. The Municipal Clerk maintains a copy of open records requests and responses per City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances Section 2-183.
WITHHELD INFORMATION WOULD HAVE UNDERMINED CITY’S TAKING LAWSUIT AGAINST HOMEOWNERS
In 2017, the City’s eminent domain case went forward against Tanya Washington and the Dardens before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall.
In the proceedings, observed by APN, it was revealed that the City lacked a factual justification for the taking of the homes. The documents the City produced in discovery and entered into evidence showed that the engineers concluded the opposite: that the taking was unnecessary.
For example, in 2013, Kimberly Parmer, a former engineer for the City of Atlanta, sent an email to Watershed Director Nolton Johnson, stating: “Did you also inform Commissioner Macrina that the present modeling results do not validate the need for a retention pond in Peoplestown?”
“The take away is that the City doesn’t have technical data to support the proposed land acquisition and proposed design underway. Please advise,” the City’s engineer wrote.
Therefore, the Department of Watershed had an incentive not to provide the documents for publication in Atlanta Progressive News, as they would have undermined their case for taking people’s homes, at least in the public forum of the news media.
The present writer is currently exploring appropriate remedies in regards to this matter, including legislative recommendations to prevent future similar incidents from occuring.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2018)