Atlanta Council Approves New Open Meetings Rules
(APN) ATLANTA — In a unanimous vote of twelve to zero, the City Council of Atlanta approved new open meetings rules that are even stronger than the language of the Georgia Open Meetings Act, by clearly requiring that all Committee Briefings, Work Sessions, and Public Hearings, whether they have a quorum or not, shall be subject to the Act’s requirements going forward.
These requirements include openness, the keeping of agendas and minutes, and pre-meeting advertising.
Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2) introduced the legislation at the request of Atlanta Progressive News. Natalyn Archibong (District 5) added her name as a co-sponsor today during the Committee on Council Meeting.
APN’s Editor–the present writer–drafted the legislation several months ago and worked with Hall’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Jay Tribby; Policy Analyst Bernard Thomas; and Senior Assistant City Kristen Denius on numerous drafts.
The final version that passed today incorporated ideas raised by Councilmembers Felicia Moore (District 9) during the last Cmte on Council Meeting about creating a new subsection; and an amendment by Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) to ensure that no official actions can be taken at Committee Briefings.
Hall called the legislation a victory for “community voices that want to see more transparency and making sure that the public is included in everything we do and making sure government is for the people; I don’t think my colleagues ever didn’t want to do that,” Hall told APN upon the legislation’s passage.
“When you dig through the ordinances and what becomes practice, sometimes we have a gap in our delivery, I think this legislation, in working closely with you [APN], is a total improvement, to help us improve some language on the books,” Hall said.
Hall said he saw the legislation’s passage as a positive example for “new team building between the community, the Legal Department, and Councilmembers. That’s really what I saw come out of this. We’re thankful for your [APN’s] hard work for sure. We were able to have a conversation about the matter – we worked through it and come up with a solution we were able to win with. It took some deliberation, but not more than any other matter.”
“Citizens can be a part. Ideas can become law. You have to have a working relationship with your elected official, it’s not hard to do. This is what should be happening,” Hall said.
The resolution resolves a public policy debate that has spanned at least nearly three years and culminated in the present writer filing in May 2011, and then re-filing in September 2012, a lawsuit challenging the Council’s erstwhile practice of holding closed-door Committee Briefings that citizens were unable to attend.
The lawsuit argued, first, that the City was at times violating the clear letter of the Act by having closed Committee Briefings where a quorum of members were present; and second, that even when there was no quorum, the City was still violating the Act because of case law called Jersawitz v. Fortson (1994).
Mr. Jack Jersawitz, prior to his death in December 2012, had urged Atlanta Progressive News to challenge the Council’s practices. Jersawitz had previously won a case in the Court of Appeals of Georgia, pro bono, where the Court ruled that certain meetings without a quorum still had to be open to the public.
The office of Sam Olens, the Attorney General of Georgia, got involved in the matter, leading to three-way talks between Olens’s Office, the City of Atlanta, and APN’s News Editor.
The City and State offered APN Editor’s a compromise by way of a Consent Decree stating that the City would promise never to have a quorum again at a closed-door Committee Briefing. Of course, that would have solved the first issue, but not the second. The present writer rejected the Consent Decree.
In June 2012, Chairwoman Moore of the Finance/Executive Cmte became the first Chairperson in recent times to agree to open up her Briefings to the public.
In September 2012, then-Chairwoman Archibong of City Utilities opened her Briefings to the public.
In October 2012, shortly after the lawsuit was re-filed in September 2012, the Transportation Committee had a Committee Briefing with a quorum, but Chairman CT Martin (District 10) at first refused to allow a Fox 5 news cameraman to record the meeting, according to Fox 5. When APN learned of the quorum, APN threatened to seek criminal misdemeanor fines against some of the Councilmembers involved in the incident.
In January 2013, at the urging of Council President Ceasar Mitchell, all seven Chairpersons agreed to open up their Briefings to the public.
Mitchell had brokered a compromise in which the Briefings would be opened to the public, but the Council would also consider multi-Committee public comment time restrictions. However, the public comment time restriction legislation failed in a series of votes before the Full Council in March 2013.
In February 2013, the City of Atlanta and APN’s Editor completed mediation in which the City agreed to pay one thousand dollars in pro se legal expenses [for this and another case commonly known as the secret vote lawsuit], and in which the City’s Law Department agreed to provide annual open meetings and open records training to the Council, its staff, and key administration officials going forward.
The passage of today’s legislation resolves the issue of the Committee Briefings going forward to ensure they are open to the public in the future, whether there is a quorum present at the Briefings or not.
While historically even non-quorum Public Hearings and Work Sessions have been open to the public, the legislation also codifies that existing practice.
This is at least the second positive step on open meetings issues the Full Council has taken over the last four years.
Previously, in March 2012, the Council amended the minutes of its February 2010 Council Retreat to disclose how Councilmembers voted in a previously-undisclosed vote on limiting public comment. The amendment followed a Supreme Court of Georgia ruling in February 2012 in favor of APN’s Editor that vote details needed to be recorded in the minutes for agencies in Georgia, even for non-roll call votes.