Councilwoman Moore Defends Closed-Door Committee Briefings
(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9), Chairwoman of the Committee on Council (COC), defended the practice of closed-door, private committee briefings, during the March 07, 2011, Cmte meeting, in response to an inquiry from Atlanta Progressive News.
Moore argued that with Council Members making occasional references publicly at Cmte meetings to what was discussed in briefing was sufficient public disclosure.
Each of the seven Council Committees–COC, City Utilities, Public Safety/Legal Administration, Community Development/Human Resources, Finance/Executive, Transportation, and Zoning–have a briefing which occurs prior to the Committee meeting.
In previous interviews with APN, Moore as well as Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson, explained the City’s policy on briefings: they conduct themselves in accordance with the bare minimum of what Georgia law requires of them, which is to only consider the briefing to be an open meeting if there is a quorum of the Cmte.
However, because there is rarely a quorum at these briefings, the meetings are rarely open to the public.
Because citizens do not have any way of predicting whether there will be a quorum at a briefing [a condition which can change from minute to minute], they would have to take a gamble in attending; this creates a disincentive to citizens in terms of even attempting to attend.
But some citizens have already tried to attend the closed door, private briefings, without success.
Neighborhood activist Cary Duncan, 71, said he tried to attend a briefing about two years ago, during the previous Council Session, and that Moore was insistent that he leave.
“I’ve always been opposed to these private briefings and the public not being involved. They should be open. I like going to these briefings myself. You’ve got to turn over every stone to get at the truth,” Duncan said.
Duncan said he was interested in legislation concerning whether alleyways in the City of Atlanta were public or private, and that he observed several Council Members heading to a private Council office for a related committee briefing.
“There about three… Council people going in. I asked, what was taking place? I said that’s something I’m interested in, I just followed them back there. I was asked to leave,” Duncan recalled.
“They said they did not have a quorum. They said there would not be that type of a vote. I know if there was a quorum, I could’ve stayed,” Duncan recalled.
“I did not push myself. I was irritated. I said this is definitely wrong and I’ve spoke against it at various Cmte meetings,” Duncan said.
Duncan said the briefings are perhaps more important than the Cmte meetings themselves. “That’s where the good stuff goes on,” he said.
“Felicia… did take a chair and prop the door open so it wasn’t really a closed meeting,” Duncan recalled.
“I usually like Felicia, she’s independent, but she was the one who was insistent that I leave, that I wasn’t invited. She put the chair in the door.”
This Session, while serving as Chair of COC, Moore has emerged as one of the leading defenders of secrecy and opacity in Council activities. First, she conducted, then defended, the secret vote of February 2010 at the Council Retreat [which is still in litigation, where she supported use of taxpayer dollars to defend the secret vote]. Now she is defending secret, private briefings.
“Lay your facts out on the table, so the public knows who will vote for what,” Duncan said. “She didn’t want me there because I was doing my own research. They are little games they play. I’ve tried to attend as many of those meetings as I could because you’ll learn a lot. The Council Members will get irritated with one another and let things slip, and that’s when I like to know exactly what’s going on,” Duncan said.
Various Councilmembers have made references during this Council Session, which began in 2010, regarding “what we discussed in briefing,” “when I asked the question in briefing,” or “the presentation that was made in briefing.”
References to discussions in briefings are frequently made in relation to controversial topics where Council Members likely wanted to avoid having controversial discussions publicly, such as legislation related to the Atlanta Eagle raid or the City Hall East redevelopment.
However, because citizens do not know what is being discussed in the briefings, it appears often that the real discussion, debate, and decision-making of the Council goes on behind closed doors and in secret, and that therefore, the real, public committee meetings are just an act.
“Mr. Cardinale [the present writer], I don’t want you putting that out there in the universe,” Moore replied.
“If it was untransparent and the Council didn’t want… why would we even say on the air that it was in the briefing. I think people making the point, what was said in a briefing… is disclosure and is trying to be open,” Moore said.
“So I think it’s unfair to say the Council, or alluding to the fact there’s some lack of transparency, when people are coming out saying what actually occurred. If you want us to stop saying that, we could stop saying what happened in the briefing,” Moore said.
“Do you want us not to say what… is that what you’re saying?” Moore asked.
“I want two things: I want the briefings to be open to the public and I want them to be videotaped,” the present writer replied.
One Council Member told APN they believe some Council Members make references to briefings because they want to let other Council Members who were not at the briefing know that they were left out of the discussion.
However, the way Council President Ceasar Mitchell has scheduled the briefings and committees, there is overlap between some briefings and committee meetings, meaning that even by the way the schedule is structured, some members cannot attend and the briefings are unlikely to have a quorum.
To be sure, under Georgia law there are many categories of items which can be discussed by Council Members privately in executive session. Therefore, if there is a legitimate topic of conversation, such as a legal discussion or a personnel matter, which would require privacy, there is a process already available to the Council to discuss those matters. Having a private, closed door briefing prior to each Cmte meeting is not the appropriate venue for confidential discussions by the Council.
(END / 2011)