Powder Springs to Take Minutes of Closed Meetings
In accordance with a recently passed Georgia law, the documents can only be seen initially by a judge.
Before Monday night’s legislative meeting, Powder Springs city officials rehashed a main component of the recently passed House Bill 397—that executive session minutes must be taken by the city clerk.
Powder Springs’ city clerk, Dawn Davis, and City Attorney Richard Calhoun described to the City Council that Davis will take the minutes and then put them in a sealed envelope. They can then only be opened by a judge if someone files a suit, and the judge is the only one who can decide if anyone else can see them.
A “transcript” of the meeting isn’t required, but the minutes “must identify the specific issues discussed,” according to the Georgia attorney general’s office.
Powder Springs’ executive sessions exclude members of the public and are held for one or more of three reasons: personnel issues like hiring and firing, land acquisition, and legal issues.
Included in the personnel issues are interviewing the finalists for executive offices. Also allowed are discussions on “exempt portions of records.”
Typically attending executive sessions are the mayor, council members, the city manager, city attorney, city clerk, various top officials like the community development director or police chief, and sometimes members of the city’s engineering firm, Croy Engineering.
The meetings have been openly criticized for transparency and topical issues by former Councilmen Ra Barr and Tom Bevirt, both drawing rebuttals from Calhoun (rebuttal to Barr and rebuttal to Bevirt).
Barr also criticized the executive session vote to give Mayor Pat Vaughn a $3,000-per-month pay increase when she first served as both mayor and city manager. He said that since this was a budget amendment, there should have been two public readings and hearings. Calhoun didn’t offer a rebuttal to this.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who served as Cobb County commission chairman from 2002-2010, has said that he began looking into Georgia’s open meetings and records laws shortly after taking office in January 2011.
The office handled 250-plus complaints about the laws in 2010, then more than 400 in 2011, according to the attorney general’s website.
“Current statutes are ambiguous, confusing, redundant and do not incorporate judicial interpretations,” it says. “Gray areas of the law often result in violations of the spirit and intent of the law.”
The state Senate unanimously approved H.B. 397 on March 28, with Gov. Nathan Deal signing it into law on April 17.
The attorney general’s website says the bill offers the following improvements:
- Makes clear that final votes must be taken in public, including on real estate transactions
- Clarifies and streamlines how government officials must respond to a request
- Lowers the cost of records from 25 cents to 10 cents a page
- Enables government to act more efficiently by permitting certain meetings by teleconference in emergency situations
- Requires minutes in closed meetings with review by a court when a challenge is filed
- Provides the teeth needed to enforce the law by allowing the attorney general to bring civil or criminal actions against violators
- Increases fines for violations to a maximum of $1000, and up to $2500 for additional violations within a year; prior fines were a maximum of $100 for an open records violation and a maximum of $500 for an open meetings violation
- Updates language regarding trade secrets and electronic documents to ensure transparency is not compromised by technological advances
- Incorporates various court rulings to simplify the law
What do you think of H.B. 397? Tell us in the comments.