The following was submitted by Fred DeRuvo, of Hampton. Submit letters, questions or essays to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
I read with interest Rachel Shirey’s article on Executive Sessions and how they are used by local city councils vs. how they are supposed to be used. Not only does this difference slip by many of us residents, but it is clearly something that local city councils are either not aware of or prefer to ignore.
For instance, Hampton City Council routinely uses the “executive session” clause to discuss two main things:
One would think that this would not really be wrong, but according to Open Meeting laws, red flags are raised. Shirey notes (in quoting Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter), “For example, he said some government entities treat ‘personnel matters’ as an all-inclusive cloak which results in a board erring on the side of caution instead of on the side of openness.”
To further the point, Shirey quotes Board of Education Chairwoman Pam Adamson, who at one point stated that “State law says you have to discuss personnel issues in executive session…You cannot do it out here in front of an audience.”
That is, unfortunately, untrue, according to the Open Meetings Laws of Georgia. It is a blatant misconception similar to the “separation of church and state” dictum, which does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution, yet too many people believe it does.
The reality appears to be that city councils or other government boards are very limited in what can be discussed in executive sessions with respect to personnel issues. Most things must be discussed in open meetings. The exact text of the Open Meetings Law O.C.G.A. 50-14-3(b) does not even mandate or require boards or councils to meet in executive session, but simply provides the opportunity for them to do so. That’s a huge difference.
Yet, here in Hampton, the Hampton City Council routinely segregates themselves off from the public in executive sessions to discuss “personnel issues.” In fact, the phrase “possible litigation” is also routinely used as an excuse for the council to meet away from public hearing. Unfortunately, according to these same Open Meetings Laws, this is not a reason that can be utilized. A council cannot simply go behind closed doors to discuss the possibility of being sued.
“Board members are only permitted to meet privately as a quorum with their attorney present to discuss pending litigation, but there must be a formal intent to sue, or an ante litem notice, filed before the board can proceed.”
This is completely different from discussing “possible litigation,” which can mean anything including no lawsuit pending. Note the highlighted part of the quote. There must actually be something in the works that is moving toward litigation, not simply the possibility that the city may be sued.
The more I attend Hampton City Council meetings, the more I realize that, unfortunately, the city council often fails to do things by the book. While some might call me a legalist, the reality is that the rule of law is in effect in order to ensure that citizens/residents are made aware of everything that the city council is doing. The law is designed to keep the city council’s actions above board and out of the shadows. It forces the city council to be as open and as transparent as they can be.
It’s really very simple. Either a person is for the rule of law for everyone (including themselves) or they believe they are there to create and dictate to everyone else while they do whatever is expedient for themselves.
Whether it is a city, state, or federal government, these councils and agencies need to be as transparent as they can be. If not, the only question left to ask is, what are they trying to hide?