Atlanta Gathered, Withheld Watershed Records from APN in 2015
(APN) ATLANTA — In 2015, the City of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management gathered records regarding its perceived need to take the homes of Peoplestown families through eminent domain, in response to a records request from Atlanta Progressive News, but then never provided the records, APN has learned.
APN previously has reported that we never received the records.
Now, through a separate information request, made in 2018 and only fulfilled in recent days, the City has revealed that they knowingly and intentionally withheld the records – although it is not clear who gave the direction to do so.
This is a severe violation of the Georgia Open Records Act, O.C.G.A. 50-18-70 et seq., arguably even worse than the recent criminal conviction of former City of Atlanta spokeswoman Jenna Garland.
After all, Garland only gave instructions to frustrate access to records; in this case, it appears that someone at the City of Atlanta intentionally directed that identified records be withheld.
APN reached Lillian Govus, the former Spokeswoman for the Department of Watershed Management (DWM), who now lives in Oregon. Govus had testified against Jenna Garland in late 2019 regarding an unrelated open records matter.
Govus told APN that she does not remember all of the specifics of APN’s request but that neither she nor Susan Ross, then-Records Coordinator for DWM had the authority to make the decision to withhold such records.
“I do not make unilateral decisions not to release records,” Govus told APN. “It is not ethically how records officers should operate.
“Neither of us had that authority,” Govus said, referring to herself and Ross as “low level.”
Govus described a culture of opacity at Atlanta City Hall that viewed Georgia’s Sunshine Laws and the news media as the enemy.
“Jo Ann Macrina was opposed to anything that created a public record,” Govus said, referring to the former Director of DWM.
“There was an attorney named Alan Barnes who worked for her personally, not the City of Atlanta. And at around that time was the sale of the Stadium. I know definitely because of the sale of the stadium at the same time, those records weren’t seen as a viable public record,” Govus said.
“They see the records law very narrowly.”
On September 09, 2015, Govus 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.”
On the same date, the present writer wrote Govus: “Pursuant to the ORA, can you pls provide any and all documents that you rely upon when making the… comment on the Atlanta Progressive News website.”
Govus replied: “Sure thing! Copying Sue Ross now who handles ORRs – she’ll be in touch.” Susan Ross at the time held the Open Records Coordination position for the Department of Watershed Management.
On Sept. 15, 2015, Ross responded: “The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM) has received your Open Records request.”
“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.
That was the last communication APN had received regarding the request.
However, new records reveal that Ross and Govus went on to coordinate a response to the request.
Nolton Johnson of DWM, for example, wrote to Ross: “I placed a folder under your door for this. No copies made and you have the originals. It is everything I can find in-house on the Hank Aaron Pond option for Peoplestown. If I locate anything else, I will contact you,” on Sept. 21, 2015.
Finally, on Sept. 21, 2015, Susan Ross wrote to Govus, “Need to speak to you tomorrow about this before we send response.”
Govus said she does not remember this conversation.
Susan Ross, reached by phone, has retired from the City of Atlanta, although she still works there part-time. Ross referred all questions to the City of Atlanta.
The City of Atlanta has a zero percent response rate of responding to APN media inquiries under the Keisha Bottoms Administration, so, per APN’s policy regarding non-responsive parties, we are not sending a new media inquiry.
APN reached out on March 20, 2018, to Kristen Denius, then Senior City Attorney, currently Transparency Officer for the City of Atlanta, to see if the City had any additional information regarding the 2015 records request; and we have still not received a response.
There are two lawsuits currently pending alleging additional records violations:
Coleman v. City of Atlanta (2019) alleges, among other things, a pattern and practice of open records violations by the City including some twenty violations to date. The Fulton County Superior Court case is currently the subject of a ninety day stay.
Cardinale v. City of Atlanta (2020) alleges, among other things, that Michael Smith and Peter Kadushin of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s Office of Communications did not respond to a request for a copy of the 2009 Cable Franchise Agreement between the City of Atlanta and Comcast of Georgia/Virginia, Inc. that APN made on Feb. 08, 2020.
The case is currently in federal court before U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg.
To confirm that Smith and Kadushin received the request, APN made a records request for the records request on March 20, 2020. However, they have not even responded to the records request for the records request.
APN file photo of Susan Ross from a proclamation honoring Sistagraphy. Photo of Govus from Twitter, published pursuant to Fair Use doctrine.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2020)