Ga. city council in trouble with AG again

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 17, 2011, 10:48am

Sam Olens

SAVANNAH, Ga. (Legal Newsline) - Savannah city officials, already warned by Attorney General Sam Olens in April for violating Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records laws, contend they have not violated the laws in settling a councilwoman's flood claim.

In a recent letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter to City Attorney James Blackburn, Ritter wrote that the city council and staff members allegedly violated the laws when, in a closed session, it agreed to award council member Mary Osborne more than $50,000 for damage to her home from street flooding.

According to the Savannah Morning News, Ritter also alleged that the city did not provide the documents he requested.

The Attorney General's Office said the public has a right to hear discussion of the flood claim by the council.

The city is already in hot water with the attorney general for violating the Open Meetings and Open Records laws on three separate occasions.

Olens, in an April 4 letter to council members, their attorney and Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, found fault with three meetings held in December and January.

"Based on the evidence we have uncovered the Council failed to adhere to both the letter and spirit of the law during its meetings on Dec. 17 and Jan. 18 and 19," the attorney general wrote.

During its Dec. 10, 2010, meeting, the council went into a closed session to discuss the impending hire of a city manager. During this closed meeting, the council also met with individuals from a company known as Affion Public to receive information and ask questions. It also received some documents from the company, which haven't been publicly disclosed.

"While some discussion among the mayor and aldermen may have concerned the relative merits of the candidates, it is also reported to this Office that the method of conducting the city manager search was discussed," Olens wrote.

"In this regard, it is reported to me, though it is also disputed, that the mayor specifically sought to interview candidates in private groups of less than a quorum to avoid subjecting the interviews to public and media scrutiny."

Those meetings discussing or deliberating an appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal or "periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee" can be closed; however, "not when receiving evidence or hearing argument on charges filed to determine disciplinary action or dismissal of a public officer or employee." Meetings to discuss or take action on the filling of a vacancy in the membership of the agency itself "shall at all times be open to the public," under the act, according to the Attorney General's Office.

"In the view of this Office, and in light of the law, the receipt of any substantive information regarding personnel matters is to be done in an open and not a closed session," Olens wrote.

How a search for personnel will be conducted also is something that should be in the public eye, the attorney general said, "as it is clearly a matter of public interest."

On Jan. 18, the council met with the candidates for the city manager position in groups of less than a quorum of council members it called "council panels."

Meeting in non-quorum groups to evade the requirements of the act "contravenes both the requirements as well as the purposes of the act," the attorney general said.

"It is transparent that the public and the media have an interest in seeing and hearing the interview responses of candidates for key public positions," Olens wrote.

On Jan. 19, the council reconvened and conducted private, closed-door interviews of the candidates with the council meeting as a whole. Notice was not posted for this meeting until the day of the meeting, the attorney general noted.

"Although a general agenda was electronically posted through the Georgia Coastal Center, where the meetings on Jan. 18 and 19 occurred, there is no indication as to how or where this was physically posted at the meeting site, as the law requires," Olens wrote.

"Nor was there any recording related to this meeting -- which appears unusual for the Council -- even of the public portion of the meeting where the Council would have voted (if it voted) to go into a closed meeting."

The law, the attorney general said, requires that notice of a specially called meeting must be made and posted at least 24 hours in advance.

Olens said the "repeated violations" were "serious" and appear to have been designed to "impede the access of the public and the press" to information in the hiring of a new city manager.

"The Act was enacted in the public interest to protect the public -- both individuals and the public generally -- from 'closed door' politics and the potential abuse of individuals and the misuse of power such policies entail," he reminded the council.

At the time, the attorney general said his five-page letter was "notice" that future violations of the law may lead to "immediate civil litigation or criminal prosecution" by his office.

Such action, he said, would result in the invalidation of action taken by the council, the imposition of fines and the "potential recall or removal of the officials involved."

The attorney general had offered to provide training for the council on the state's Open Meetings and Open Records Acts.

Olens' office required the city council to sign an agreement to make sure it complies with the laws in the future.

According to the Morning News, the council voted unanimously Thursday to have Johnson sign the agreement.

If the city hadn't signed the document, the Attorney General's Office would have pursued litigation and various sanctions against the council, the newspaper reported.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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