Councilman Hall Seeks to Codify Atlanta’s Open Briefings
(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2) has introduced legislation that seeks to codify the Council’s recently adopted practice of open Committee Briefings, so that citizens will not have to worry about future Briefings being closed to the public.
Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) is the first to tell Atlanta Progressive News she will support the legislation.
As previously reported by APN, the Council’s seven Committee Chairs voluntarily agreed to open their Cmte Briefings in January of this year, after numerous citizens raised concerns about the fact that, as a subset of the Committee, Councilmembers had been meeting with Administration officials and others to routinely discuss substantive matters behind closed doors.
Since January, the Briefings are now duly advertised as open to the public, and are held in Committee Room 1, which is open to the public.
Councilman Hall introduced the legislation as a personal paper at the end of the last Full Council Meeting on May 20, 2013, and it was referred to the Cmte on Council, where it will appear on the June 03 agenda.
Hall plans to introduce a substitute version of the legislation at the June 03 meeting.
The legislation would amend the Atlanta City Code of Ordinances 2-133, subsection f.
The full text of the substitute legislation, obtained by APN, is as follows:
“AN ORDINANCE TO AMEND THE ATLANTA, GEORGIA CODE OF ORDINANCES, PART II, CODE OF ORDINANCES, (GENERAL ORDINANCES), CHAPTER 2, (ADMINISTRATION), DIVISION 3, (STANDING AND OTHER COMMITTEES), SUBDIVISION I, (STANDING COMMITTEES), SECTION 2-133 (I) (OPERATIONS; PROCEDURES), BY AMENDING SUBSECTION F (REPORT OF ACTIONS; PUBLIC SESSIONS); AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
“WHEREAS, the City of Atlanta seeks to provide its citizens with an excellent level of meaningful transparency, oversight, and public participation with regard to the operation of Committees of the City Council of Atlanta;
“WHEREAS, since at least 1998, all seven Standing Committees of the City Council of Atlanta have engaged in a practice of holding Committee Briefings prior to their respective Committee Meetings, in each committee cycle;
“WHEREAS, the primary objective of these Committee Briefings is to brief the Chairperson of each Standing Committee regarding the procedural status of items on the agenda of the upcoming Committee Meeting, in order to promote more efficient Committee Meetings;
“WHEREAS, numerous Atlanta citizens have expressed a desire for more consistency and transparency with respect to the operation of these Committee Briefings; and
“WHEREAS, the City of Atlanta wishes to provide citizens with a more reliable and consistent set of procedures with respect to the operation of Committee Briefings.
“NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ORDAINED BY THE COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF ATLANTA, GEORGIA, as follows:
“SECTION 1: The Atlanta, Georgia Code of Ordinances, Part II, Code of Ordinances, (General Ordinances), Chapter 2, (Administration), Division 3, (Standing and Other Committees), Subdivision I, (Standing Committees), Section 2-133 (f) (Operations; procedures), which currently provides as follows:
“Sec. 2-133. – Operations; procedures. (f) Report of actions: public sessions. No measure or recommendation shall be reported out of any committee unless a majority of the committee members are present at the time such action was taken. All hearings conducted by standing committees and select committees and all actions, including voting on measures, shall be conducted in open session with the public fully invited thereto.
“Is hereby amended so as to provide as follows:
“Sec. 2-133. – Operations; procedures. (f) Report of actions: open meetings. No measure or recommendation shall be reported out of any committee unless a majority of the committee members are present at the time such action was taken. All committee briefings, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, hearings, and work sessions conducted by standing committees and select committees, shall be conducted in accordance with all requirements set forth for “meetings,” as provided in the Georgia Open Meetings Act (O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1 et seq.); and, with the exception of executive sessions, as defined in the Act (O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3), shall be conducted in open session with the public fully invited thereto.
“SECTION 2: All ordinances or parts of ordinances in conflict herewith are hereby repealed.”
As previously reported by APN, APN’s News Editor–the present writer–filed litigation, first in May 2011, then re-filed in September 2012, challenging the closed-door status of most, if not all, of the Council’s closed Briefings.
APN’s Editor dismissed the case earlier this year in mediation with the City of Atlanta after the Council Cmte Chairs voluntarily opened the Briefings to the public.
Kristen Denius and Amber Robinson of the Law Department reviewed an earlier version of the legislation and stated that they would not be opposed to the legislation. The Law Department, however, views it as a policy decision that the Council needs to make.
Previously, the Law Department has argued their opinion that they do not believe that the Briefings necessarily have to be open under the Georgia Open Meetings Act if a quorum of the Cmte Members are not present.
However, APN’s Editor has argued otherwise, citing a crucial case, Jersawitz v. Fortson, as applicable to the Briefings.
The last time there was a dispute over the meaning of the Act–regarding whether the Council could take unrecorded non-roll call votes and not disclose to the public how Councilmembers voted–APN’s Editor prevailed before the Supreme Court of Georgia, in an important ruling, Cardinale v. City of Atlanta (2012).
Fortunately, the current Cmte Chairs have opted, thus far, to do more than the bare minimum of what the Law Department advises them is necessary under the Act, by opening the Briefings to the public. This has avoided the necessity for the Supreme Court to weigh in.
The opening of the Briefings has also allowed the meetings to be attended by as many Cmte Members who wish to attend, without worrying about having a quorum.