Elected officials in Georgia should take notice of open meetings violation

A case involving closed door meetings, cloaked votes in public meetings and continued violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act should have implications across the state of Georgia.

The Valdosta Board of Education has announced it will stop its longstanding practice of going into executive session, discussing personnel issues, then reconvening in an open public meeting and unanimously approving “the superintendent’s recommendations from executive session,” without providing any information to the public regarding what those recommendations included.

The practice was challenged by the Valdosta Daily Times through news coverage and editorials. Editor Jim Zachary met with the superintendent of schools, Georgia Press Association general counsel David Hudson reviewed the ongoing practice saying it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act and, then the Office of the Attorney General sent a strong message to the school system’s attorney telling the BOE it was out of compliance with the state’s sunshine laws.  The Valdosta Daily Times said this week, the newspaper is pleased with the Valdosta Board of Education’s pledge to comply with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Zachary, director of the Transparency Project, wrote in a Times editorial, “Open government is good government, or at the very least it is better government. The board will find that improved transparency will create greater buy-in from the general public and help to lessen suspicion. Doing things behind closed doors breeds suspicion and distrust, even if what is discussed is completely above board. When the school board’s attorney contacted the Office of the Attorney General and asked what specific steps needed to be taken to comply with the state’s sunshine law, he did the right thing. When the state’s attorney says you are in violation of the Act, you should consider yourself to be in violation. In this case, the newspaper, the Transparency Project of Georgia, the First Amendment Foundation, the general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and the Attorney General had clearly said the Valdosta Board of Education was in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not identifying its business on meeting agendas and not disclosing what action was being taken during public votes. There was no doubt the Valdosta Board of Education was not in compliance. So far as compliance goes, it does not matter all that much that the BOE stopped short of admitting wrongdoing. In fact, admitting a willful violation of the law would have probably not been the best legal advice the attorney could have given board members. When it comes to obeying the law, it is not necessary we agree with a law, merely that we comply with it. Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo has been a welcome addition to the Office of the Attorney General. She is now tasked with enforcement of the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act. Colangelo seems to understand that government has a job to do and elected officials should be respected and given the necessary tools to do their jobs, but must also be held accountable. The most important thing at this point is that she follows through. We encourage the public, especially those who have been critical of the state’s enforcement of open government legislation, to acknowledge changes that have been made in the Office of the Attorney General and to try working with Colangelo. Having government hold government accountable may not be the best case scenario, but it is what we have in Georgia. An independent open government ombudsman would be preferred, has been suggested, but not approved by the General Assembly. Many states require aggrieved party lawsuits in order to remedy meetings and records violations. That puts the onus, and the financial burden, on the public and that is a worst case scenario. When Georgia’s sunshine laws were rewritten and ratified in April 2012, the new law provided, “the Attorney General shall have authority to bring enforcement actions, either civil or criminal, in his or her discretion as may be appropriate to enforce compliance…” Attorney General Sam Olens pledged in 2010 when running for office that he would improve open government laws. Having the legal mechanisms in place to enforce the law is one of those improvements. The office, understandably, prefers to use mediation to resolve violations of the laws, rather than prosecution. There is nothing wrong with that. The point is compliance, not punishment, not winning a fight and not making headlines. We never wanted the violations of the Valdosta Board of Education to continue to the point where the Office of the Attorney General had to get involved. The BOE was facing the very real possibility of litigation from the state. After first sending the Attorney General a long, rambling and defiant letter saying it would continue its practice, the BOE finally reversed itself and said it will follow the recommendations of the Office of the Attorney General, viz. the Georgia Open Meetings Act. That was the right thing to do.”

School boards, county commissions, city councils and other government agencies across the state of Georgia are guilty of similar practices and this case should send a strong message to elected officials and government attorneys everywhere.

For complete coverage and editorials see:          www.valdostadailytimes.com

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