Editor's Note: Below is a response to Ra Barr's letter to the editor concerning open meetings laws in Powder Springs. The letter, published unedited by Patch, is by City Attorney Richard Calhoun and is addressed to Mayor Pat Vaughn and the City Council. The actual letter is attached as a PDF and includes documents referenced in the first paragraph below.
Dear Mayor Vaughn and Council Members:
In the attached correspondence, which I believe is self explanatory, we have previously addressed Mr. Barr’s concerns with the conduct and minutes of city council meetings. I would also add that I have received no response to the request made in the second page of my letter to Mr. Weber, for specific examples of conduct which he believes contravene the open meetings law.
With respect to Mr. Barr’s position that the minutes of agenda work sessions should be more comprehensive, the open meetings statute requires only that a written summary of the subjects acted on, and those members present, be made available, and that minutes of meetings contain the names of the members present, a description of each motion or other proposal made, and a record of all votes. See, Cardinale v. City of Atlanta 308 Ga App. 234 (2011) (neither city nor its officials violated the open meetings act by refusing to provide additional information about vote concerning public comment rules).
The City’s records comply with, and often exceed these requirements. To the extent any “polling” may occur, such action is not binding on anyone, and in no sense constitutes a “vote” or “official action”. Camden County v. Haddock 271, GA 664 (1999) (perceived consensus of members of governing body not equivalent to vote or official action)
The fact that the council’s work sessions are conducted in a conference room in city hall as opposed to the council chambers is not unusual. Cobb County, Smyrna, and Kennesaw all hold their agenda meetings in conference rooms with limited seating. In Harms v. Adams, 238 Ga. 186 (1977), the Georgia Supreme court held that meetings conducted in the mayor’s office (described as a “small and crowded room”) did not violate the act because no member of the public was excluded from, or denied admission to, the meetings. The City’s agenda meeting room is likewise open to all members of the public during its meetings.
Mr. Barr also takes the position that the Saturday morning “Breakfasts with Mayor and Council” constitute meetings under the open meetings law; however I must respectfully disagree. Although the open meetings statute is to be broadly construed, it should not be given a construction beyond its plain intent.
The activity which occurs at the breakfasts is in no sense official, or even preparatory to, any official act or business. The open meetings act speaks in terms of “gatherings” at which any “public matter, official business, or policy of the agency [the City] is to be discussed or presented, or at which any official action is to be taken”.
It is clear that no official action is taken at these breakfasts. Secondly, it would be impossible to predict what questions might be asked by the citizens who attend, so as to call a meeting for the purpose of discussing them. Thus the act’s requirement that the gathering be one where a “public matter, official business, or policy [of the City] is to be discussed” is not met.
More importantly, as I understand it, the conversations which occur between citizens and council members are limited to one-on-one conversations on different subjects, with no common discussion or presentation on any particular subject. The only two examples I am aware of in which all attendees participated as a group (a presentation by a Mary Kay cosmetics representative, and another by a boy scout), do not, in my opinion, qualify as a “public matter, official business, or policy” of the city. The customary purpose of a meeting is to present and collectively discuss specific subjects one at a time. An event such as the breakfasts, at which separate conversations among different participants, on differing subjects occur simultaneously, neither accomplishes the purpose of a meeting, nor fits the description of a meeting generally or under the statute.
It is also significant that in a recent decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals refused to find that a “gathering” of several county commissioners to discuss a recent court ruling constituted a “meeting” under the act, and in so doing specifically mentioned that no votes were taken, no decisions were made, and no official action was taken. Gumz v. Irvin, 300 Ga. App. 426 (2009).
I hope that the above analysis adequately addresses any questions you may have regarding Mr. Barr’s position as stated in his recent letter, however if you should require any further information or explanation, please advise.
Yours very truly,
Richard W. Calhoun