City of Atlanta Lawyers Up in Coleman Open Records Case
Image used pursuant to fair use doctrine.
(APN) ATLANTA — The City of Atlanta has retained attorney Robert L. Ashe III (commonly called “Robbie Ashe”), at a rate of 450 dollars per hour, to defend the City in a lawsuit filed by Adrian Coleman regarding the City’s violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.
The City of Atlanta has clearly violated the law by failing to timely respond to an open records request made by Ms. Coleman to the City’s Law Department on November 26, 2019.
The City has already admitted, in its Answer filed on January 10, 2020, that it received Coleman’s request for records but did not respond until after the lawsuit was filed some two weeks later.
Now, Adrian Coleman, a senior advocate who frequently speaks on matters related to public access television, wants Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney to issue a one thousand dollar civil penalty against the City; and is also seeking other relief.
The case, Adrian Paulette Coleman v. City of Atlanta (2019), is 2019-CV-330464.
The City is clearly concerned about the case, especially after former City spokeswoman Jenna Garland was just sentenced only weeks ago under the first criminal prosecution in the State of Georgia under the Georgia Open Records Act.
Coleman is seeking a civil penalty, not a criminal penalty; and is arguing that the involved parties–Records Custodian Nina R. Hickson, the City Attorney; Records Coordinator Kristen Denius, the Transparency Officer; and Amber A. Robinson, Senior City Attorney–were negligent.
Coleman is also seeking for the Court to order the City of Atlanta to enter into a Consent Decree, where the City would be required to provide specific training and the Court would continue to monitor the City’s compliance with the Act.
The case is currently in the discovery process, which could take up to six months or more.
ROBBIE ASHE AND HIS INVOICE
Mr. Ashe, a Partner at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP, is Immediate Past Chair of the MARTA Board, was Mayor Kasim Reed’s campaign treasurer in 2009 and 2013, and is the son of former State Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta).
According to an invoice obtained by Atlanta Progressive News through an open records request, the City has already been invoiced for 3.7 hours of work in December 2019, in an amount of $1,615.50.
A second outside counsel at the Bondurant firm who is working on the case, Michael B. Jones, is making 395 dollars per hour.
Because there has been a flurry of activity in the case in January 2020 so far, we can expect the next monthly invoice to be in the thousands of dollars; and the City’s efforts to defend itself for what is indefensible, to cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the taxpayers.
The routine payment of exorbitant attorney fees to outside counsel highlights greater problems involving the City of Atlanta Law Department, which struggles to retain attorneys due to low pay and other issues.
Former City Attorney Cathy Hampton a few years ago told the City Council’s Public Safety/Legal Administration Committee that the City’s attorneys only make fifty dollars per hour on average. That explains so much. It also has the perverse effect of causing the City to unnecessarily pay nearly ten times as much, or more, to outside counsel.
AMICUS BRIEFS FILED
Senior advocates Ben Howard and Ron Shakir have each filed a Brief of Amicus Curiae and Affidavit with the Court, in which they allege that their open records requests are also routinely ignored by the City of Atlanta.
Ben Howard, 86, attested that on June 18, 2015, he mailed an open records request to then-Planning Director Charletta Wilson Jacks, which is attached as an exhibit; and that he never received a reply.
Howard also attested that on September 10, 2015, he mailed an open records request to Alison Knight, then-Interim Risk Director of the Risk Management Division of the Department of Finance, which is attached as an exhibit; and that he never received a reply.
Ron Shakir attested that on April 24, 2018, he hand-delivered an open records request to Erica Pines, then-Assistant Director of the Office of Zoning and Development; and that he never received a reply. Shakir provided the Court with a copy of his request, which was date-stamped as received by the City.
A third senior advocate also never received a response to a records request she made by email, and is preparing to file an amicus brief this week.
APN’s News Editor also has, in APN’s archives, records evidencing numerous open records violations by the City of Atlanta, including untimely responses to records requests made by APN over the last several years.
Between Coleman, Howard, Shakir, the additional senior advocate, and APN’s News Editor, there are an estimated to be at least a dozen open records violations by the City of Atlanta that will be entered into the record.
MANDAMUS, CONSENT DECREE SOUGHT
In her First Amended Complaint, filed on January 07, 2020, Coleman added two counts of mandamus to her complaint.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, City Attorney Hickson revealed in late December 2019 that, despite assertions Hickson made to the City Council that the reports were in her possession, they were, in fact, not in her possession. She had made a false and misleading assertion.
Ms. Robinson also admitted that the City as a whole was not in possession of the reports.
Therefore, in one count of mandamus, Coleman now seeks for the Court to order the City of Atlanta to obtain the Comcast reports from Comcast because Comcast is required by City Ordinance to file them regularly with the City, per Code of Ordinances, Part II, Sec. 34-18(b) (“Reports required.”)
These required reports include: “(a) Regulatory communications; (b) Constructions reports; (c) Proof of performance tests; (d) Tests required by city; (e) Change in service; (f) Franchise rules; (g) Customer service reports; (h) Financial Reports; (i) Proof of insurance; (j) Operational reports; (k) Future projections; (l) Equal Employment Opportunity and Equal Business Opportunity; and (m) Additional reports.”
It appears that the City has made no effort, for at least two mayoral administrations, to ensure that Comcast has been filing these reports.
In a second count of mandamus, Coleman seeks for the Court to order the City to publish the Open Records Website, with all the required elements, which it committed itself by ordinance to publish, per Code of Ordinances, Part II, Sec. 3-31 (“City of Atlanta open records website.”)
While the City does have an open records website, it only contains two of the eleven required elements.
Missing elements include: (1) the name and contact information for the transparency officer; (4) an online form or portal for submitting open records requests; (5) a link to the most current open records policies and procedures; (6) a copy of the City’s Open Records Act training materials; (7) a link to the city hotline email and telephone number to report violations of the Act; (8) a link to the city’s records retention schedule; (9) a link to the website of the Georgia Attorney General’s office; (10) frequently asked question; and (11) copies of any reports, assessments, or evaluations generated by the transparency officer.
In addition, the City is required by ordinance to post all records requests and responses, per Sec. 3-32, and has failed to do that.
(END/ Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2020)