Information is power and it begins with awareness.
Local government bodies in Georgia are required by law to inform citizens of their open public meetings when the information discussed affects the daily lives of citizens.
They are also required to document their discussions through agendas and minutes.
According to the Georgia Press Association, “information about government activities must be accessible in order for the electorate to make well-informed decisions. Public notices in newspapers provide this sort of accessibility to citizens who want to know more about government activities.”
And Georgia state law takes their side.
A handbook on the Georgia Sunshine Laws published by Attorney David Hudson says law mandates any regular committee meetings must be posted at least one week in advance and in a conspicuous place at the regular meeting place, whether it’s city hall, a county administrative building or board of education building. The notice must also be on the agency’s website.
This way, citizens can be informed and present at an agency’s public meeting whether it’s local government or any smaller committees, board of education, library or hospital board meetings.
For example, the city of McDonough posts its meeting and cancellation notices on the front doors of City Hall. It also has a calendar of events that lists the time and date of all meetings such as council meetings, planning commission meetings, historic preservation meetings and all citywide events.
“If they don’t have notice, they don’t have an agenda, that’s illegal,” said Assistant State Attorney Stefan Ritter in an open meetings seminar hosted by the Georgia Press Association.
Before the city of McDonough updated its website this fall, the committee meeting information was a general list of vague times and dates, such as the council will meet the second and third Mondays of each month at 5:30 p.m.
However in some instances, the meetings began at a different time or didn’t happen on the day listed. In July, the general meeting dates happened to fall on the Fourth of July and the meeting was conducted on a different day. The website was never updated.
Ritter said, in the past, the city of McDonough violated the law in terms of notice with their misleading and false meeting start times. He added it could have been an oversight, but in the case that it was purposefully misleading and hadn’t been updated, then they were breaking the law.
However, the city has since updated its website and this is no longer an issue. Likewise, Henry County, Stockbridge, Hampton and Locust Grove post notices at their respective meeting places and on their websites.
When all else fails, government bodies are also required to inform the legal organ newspaper, the Henry Daily Herald.
Public notice is required to be given to the Herald at least 24 hours in advance for all special called meetings. In the instance of an emergency meeting that would give less than 24 hours public notice, the government agency must contact the legal organ by phone, fax or email.
If this were to occur, the Henry Daily Herald would do its best to get the information out to citizens, whether it’s by posting it on the website and social media pages or publishing it in the print edition.
Once a citizen has been properly, and legally, informed that a meeting will occur, they should be able to locate an agenda that lists that meeting’s topics of discussion.
Ritter said the agenda is not required more than two weeks before the meeting, and the agenda has to be published in sufficient time to let the public know what is going to be covered in that meeting.
McDonough city leaders send an email blast to citizens who request it with the agenda attached and, beginning this fall, posts the agenda on the city website. Stockbridge and Henry County officials also post their agendas and related city documents to the websites. Locust Grove and Hampton have their agendas available upon request at City Hall.
Citizens can access the Henry County Board of Education’s agenda through the agency’s website, however the agenda is known to be posted from as little as one day to 10 minutes prior to the meeting.
However, the agenda is not set in stone until approved by the board at the beginning of the meeting. Government agencies are also permitted to amend their agendas if it “becomes necessary” during a meeting and with a unanimous vote, but it is not recommended.
Ritter said if the agenda has been manipulated in a way to cause surprise on the people — that’s an issue.
“Surprise, they did not expect it and they cannot defer it — if they meet that two-part test, then they are legally allowed to discuss it that night. Otherwise they should defer the topic,” Ritter said, adding that it is generally abused by most government agencies.
Henry County’s municipalities are also required to make any supporting documents to an agenda item available to citizens if requested. In the case of the county commission, the city of Stockbridge and the BOE, supporting documents are automatically made available when the agenda is posted to their websites.
When a meeting is in progress, it is also the responsibility of each committee to document the minutes, or the basic outcome of every agenda item including any closed meetings.
According to Hudson’s Georgia Sunshine Laws Handbook, “The minutes of a regular meeting become public when approved at the next meeting. A summary of a regular meeting must be available to the public after two business days.”
However, the minutes taken during an executive session are not made public unless the committee consents to its release or is ordered to by a judge.
Stockbridge and county officials are the most diligent about making minutes and minute summaries easily available. The information is posted on their websites and citizens don’t have to request the information.
The city of McDonough’s website also has the minutes available for citizens, a change made earlier this fall when the website was revamped. The minutes for meetings in Locust Grove and Hampton are, again, available upon request from the city clerk.
A citizen can request the public minutes from Board of Education meetings from the superintendent’s secretary.
The same laws that govern Henry County’s municipalities apply to any “agency,” which is defined in state law as every state department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, public corporation and authority; every county, municipal corporation, school district or other political subdivision of this state; every city, county, regional, or other authority established pursuant to the laws of this state; and any nonprofit organization to which there is a direct allocation of tax funds made by the governing body of any agency.
“By giving adequate public notice, sticking to a published agenda and keeping complete and accurate meeting minutes, elected officials can improve local government transparency and better serve the citizens of our county,” said Jim Zachary, editor of the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald. “Citizens have every right to expect these three basic protections from local officials.”
Written by Rachel Shirey and originally published in the Henry Daily Herald, Nov. 29, 2013.