This column will likely upset some folks, including me. I will be writing about the Open Meeting Law, also called the Sunshine Law.
Backround: The state Legislature passed this law so that citizens may know what is going on in all elected governments and have access to meetings. Elected officials that do not comply can be fined, and the Attorney General enforces this law.
You can look up this law yourself by going to the Georgia Attorney General website or to the First Amendment Foundation. Click on the "Red Book," which has all 35 pages. The law in question here can be found on the first 7 pages.
Currently the city of Powder Springs has at least one complaint filed with the AG office alleging that the law was violated and asks for a fine. The fine would be levied against all of those officials who took part, i.e. mayor and council.
Here are some important facts found in the above:
1) All meetings must be open to the public, except in three instances. I wrote my very first column about this. The three matters are personnel, purchase or sale of public property and the settlement of lawsuits.
2) Meetings must be advertised. Included in this is a posting where the meeting is to be held of the agenda and the regular council meetings. The information must be advertised in the media common to the area.
My problem is with the posting of the agenda meetings and the "Closed" or "Executive" meetings held by the mayor and council.
Agenda Meetings: Held usually every other Wednesday evening starting at 5 p.m. The meetings are posted on the City Hall bulletin board. However, items to be discussed are not.
This is the meeting where most presentations are made and discussions of ordinances and resolutions to be voted on the next Monday night. Other matters are also discussed and the meetings can last for hours.
Council meetings do not contain anywhere near the amount of thought that goes on during these meetings. Discussions are usually thorough and citizens can get an idea of where their mayor and council members stand on issues and what their reasons are. Therefore it is important that these meetings be posted along with the subjects to be discussed.
Closed, executive meetings: Here is the rub. The city has many such meetings. They often last a long time. So what is being discussed and is it all legal to the topic?
My own experience is no, they do not remain on topic. For instance, they have had lots of meetings this past fall on "personnel". Yet members veer off of the only topic that allows the meeting to be closed.
So all of the rest of the talk does not fall into the "exceptions" to the law. That's why I am upset over myself, I was there!
Many times various members will point out that we are going off course and things get back to point for a few minutes and then it starts all over again. Therefore, the public is not informed and the idea gets spread around about "secret" meetings and such.
What should be done and should have been done?
Members should object and threaten to leave the meeting. The city attorney should promptly intervene and tell members that they must get back to topic and why.
Whoever has called for the meeting (usually the mayor) should do likewise. If this does not get done, that portion is an illegal meeting. Any meeting that has a majority of council members present (three in our case) must go through the above and at least open the meeting to the public.
If any such meeting held that has three council members present, discussing public business (with sensible exceptions) must be open and advertised.
This has been a thumbnail sketch of the problem. It is easily corrected and I hope that this column will point out areas that need correcting, and soon.
Our city faces many problems. The water problem was discussed in my last column. The citizens must be informed and on board. You cannot do that if citizens think that the whole matter has been "rigged" and that they are left behind until after the fact.
I think that citizens have opportunities to involve themselves. The City Council and mayor must be sure that they follow all of the rules so that citizens more readily support the city.
There should never be talk of "secret" deals or such, and they really don't occur to the level that some believe. Lets keep it that way.
I will continue to go into these matters in later columns.