Victory! Atlanta’s Council Briefings Opened to Public, Moved to Committee Room
(APN) ATLANTA — In another major citizens’ victory for transparency, public participation, accountability, and democracy at the City Council of Atlanta, all seven Council Committees have opened their Committee Briefings to the public for 2013, and have moved the Committee Briefings to Committee Room 1, which is accessible to the public.
The seven Council Committees–City Utilities, Committee on Council, Community Development/Human Resources, Finance/Executive, Public Safety/Legal Administration, Transportation, and Zoning–each hold Committee Briefings either the day of, or in the days leading up to, the Committee Meetings.
The Council has been holding these Briefings for at least twenty years, and while, according to Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), their original intent was to brief the Chairperson of the Committee regarding the procedural status of legislative items on the Committee’s agenda, many of the Briefings had turned into an opportunity for numerous Council Members to meet with sometimes dozens of Department Heads and administrative staff to substantively pre-discuss issues on the Committee’s agenda outside of the public’s view.
The News Editor of Atlanta Progressive News–the present writer–filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the City of Atlanta regarding the Council’s very practice of holding these Briefings, most of which had been behind closed doors and closed to the public.
The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice, and refiled in 2012. The case is currently before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher, and last month was ordered into mediation, after APN’s Editor and the City both agreed to go into mediation.
Previously, as reported by APN, two Council Committees had agreed to open their Briefings to the public, over the course of 2012. Chairwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) of Finance/Executive Committee had announced in June 2012 that Finance/Executive Briefings would be open to the public. Then in September 2012, then-Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) opened up the City Utilities Briefings to the public.
Still, those Briefings were held in a Large Conference Room that is not accessible to the public without an escort.
Last week, APN observed that a Public Notice had been posted in the bulletin boards outside the committee rooms stating that the Committee on Council Briefings would be held in Committee Room 1.
Chairwoman Yolanda Adrean (District 8) of Committee on Council confirmed the information in an email to APN.
“Yes the meetings are open to the public and the move to committee room one was to accommodate the public. The purpose of the briefings are to prepare us for our meetings and if the public wishes to observe the process, they can,” Adrean wrote.
Since then, Public Notices have been posted online for the other Committees.
“Briefings for Community Development/Human Resources Committee will be open to the public and held on the Tuesdays before the first and third Mondays, at 11:30 a.m., in Committee Room #1,” the CD/HR notice, which is combined with the Zoning notice, states.
“Briefings for Zoning Committee will be open to the public and held on the Wednesdays before the first and third Mondays, at 9:00 a.m., in Committee Room #1,” the notice continues.
Michael Tyler, Interim Communications Director for the Council, confirmed that all seven Committee Briefings are indeed now open to the public and being held in Committee Room 1.
While Public Safety/Legal Administration holds a scaled-down version of the Briefing that does not include the participation of executive branch officials, it too will be open to the public and held in Committee Room 1, Tyler said, noting that a Public Notice for the PS/LA Briefing would be posted shortly.
The history of the controversy of the Committee Briefings has been lengthy as well as dramatic.
As previously reported by APN, former Councilman Derrick Boazman (District 12) told APN that at one point in 2001 when he was on the Council, the Law Department had advised that the Briefings had to be open to the public because they typically had quorums.
It is not immediately clear for how long the Briefings were opened to the public or when they started becoming closed again. However, they had been closed since at least 2010, with the exceptions as noted above.
APN made several unsuccessful attempts to locate a written opinion from the Law Department dating back to 2001, including speaking with one former City Attorney, as well as Boazman. Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristen Denius also was unable to locate a written opinion from 2001, upon receiving an Open Records Act request from APN
As previously reported, APN has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy for the last two years to open up the Committee Briefings of the seven Council Committees to the public.
APN first raised the issue on January 05, 2011, as part of Citizens’ Wish List for Transparency, Accountability, Public Input, and Ethics at City Council, that was co-authored with Ben Howard, a senior advocate, and which included a request that the seven Briefings be opened to the public.
Prior to that, Moore and Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson had explained that the Briefings were only open if there was a quorum of Committee Members at the respective Briefing, but that they were not open if there was not a quorum.
In April 2011, APN learned that in early 2011, there had been several instances where the Briefings did have a quorum but were still closed to the public.
Then APN asked Council President Ceasar Mitchell about his position, and he defended the practice of holding the closed-door Committee Briefings in situations where there was not a quorum.
The Office of the Attorney General of the State of Georgia advised that the City’s practice of holding Briefings with quorums, where they would only be spontaneously opened to the public depending perhaps upon how many Council Members showed up, did not comply with the Act’s pre-meeting advertising requirements.
The City’s Department of Law concurred in a series of memos prepared for Council Members and staff. After APN obtained the memos and wrote about them, the City obtained a preliminary injunction to prevent APN from further disseminating the memos. However, the Peach Pundit blog published the memos, making the injunction moot.
As also previously reported by APN, APN’s Editor entered into three-way consent decree negotiations with the Attorney General’s office and the City, in which the City offered to make sure that the Briefings never had a quorum, but did not agree to open the Briefings to the public.
APN’s Editor refused to sign the proposed Consent Decree, arguing that because of case law known as Jersawitz v. Fortson–a case that Jack Jersawitz won pro se against the Atlanta Housing Authority in 1994–that the Briefings have to be open whether there is a quorum or not. The Attorney General’s Office started out agreeing with that position, but at some point changed their position after beginning their talks with the City.
In any event, since then, upon information and belief, the Committee Chairs had been trying to consistently avoid having a quorum at Briefings altogether.
However, in October 2012, a closed-door Transportation Committee Briefing, chaired by CT Martin (District 10), had a quorum of Committee Members, including Martin, Moore, Adrean, and Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11). Martin allowed two reporters into the otherwise closed Briefing, but at first refused to allow a cameraman from Fox 5 to videotape the Briefing.
APN previously reported that further litigation might be filed to deal with the Open Meetings Act violations stemming from the October 2012 Briefings; however, one would hope that the remaining concerns related to the ongoing practice of holding Committee Briefings can be resolved in mediation.
In the upcoming mediation with the City of Atlanta, APN is hopeful that a long-term solution to guide the conduct of future Council Committees can be established with respect to the issue of these Committee Briefings, to ensure that they will be open to the public, not only now, but going forward.