MARY ANN ANDERSON
When Jeff Davis Ledger’s Tommy Purser, who is editor and publisher of the newspaper, spoke in the public comments section of last week’s regular monthly meeting of the Jeff Davis County Board of Commissioners, he made it clear up front that it was the last place he wanted to be.
In an unsuccessful bid to obtain in a timely manner copies of the minutes from a commission meeting a few months ago that he had not attended, he spoke directly to the commissioners, “It’s the last thing I wanted to do but I feel that I have exhausted all my remedies and gotten nowhere.”
Purser said he asked Hannah Day, who works at the commissioners’ office, for the minutes for the meeting he missed but she had been told by Heather Scott, the recently-hired administrator, that they could not be released until they had been approved by the entire commission.
“I tried to explain to her that’s not true,” Purser said. “They can be released earlier … in order for me to inform the public in a timely manner about what their elected officials are doing, I need a copy of the minutes.”
Purser also said he missed last month’s meeting. When he asked for those minutes from Jayme Crosby, who also works in the commissioners’ office, in a classic case of déjà vu, he was told once more he couldn’t get them until they were approved.
Purser then told the commissioners that he also explained to Ricky Crosby, who is commissioner from the Altamaha District, which is Purser’s own district, as well as board chairman, that the minutes can indeed be released. After his conversation with Crosby, he received an email from Scott, who said that under Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) laws, that, with even more shades of déjà vu, she could not release the minutes without approval. He also called Andy Ramay, the county’s attorney, to ask for his help.
“That didn’t work, either,” Purser said. “I’ve exhausted all my possibilities, so I have to come before the whole board to try to resolve this question.”
Purser further explained that he had been given the bare bones “minimum” summaries on the meetings, which essentially states who was present at the meeting, which motions were made, who made them and which ones passed. He then read Section 2B of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act, which he helped craft in the early 1980s as a member of the Georgia Press Association, and which states, in part, “The regular minutes of a meeting subject to this chapter shall be promptly recorded and such records shall be open to the public inspection once approved as official by the agency or its committee, but in no case later than immediately following its next regular meeting; provided, however, that nothing contained in this chapter shall prohibit the earlier release of minutes, whether approved by the agency or not.”
Purser explained that he had been in the newspaper business for more than five decades and is now in his 50th year at the helm of the Ledger. He said he “never” had a problem like this before, and other entities such as the City of Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County Board of Education have all worked well with him, including past county administrators and clerks.
“All I want to do is to be able to keep the people informed, and keep them informed in a timely manner,” he said before referring back to the Open Meetings Law, “For the last 40 years, I’ve worked with that document, I know what it says, and I rely on it. Now I’m being told I don’t know what it says. I’m not getting cooperation here, and I’m not happy.”
Ramay then took the floor, coming to the defense of Scott, by saying, “I’m the one who told her the way to do it, just the way she was [taught] to do it. In fact, the way Heather’s been handling it is the way it’s been handled for years and years.”
Ramay then read 2A of the Open Meetings Law, which states, “A summary of the subjects acted on and those members present at a meeting of any agency shall be written and made available to the public for inspection within two business days of the adjournment of a meeting.”
The summary and not the minutes, Ramay said, is sent out within two days of a meeting.
Ramay said he agreed with Purser that the law does state the minutes can be released, but he didn’t think it was “good policy” to release them if they haven’t been approved by the board. He proposed to Scott that “a little more detail” should be included in the summary.
Ramay then added he wanted to make sure that the county is in “good graces” with Purser, but Purser snapped back, “No, you won’t be,” before adding, “The point is that Heather and Jayme have said they cannot release the minutes, and that’s not true. Whether they do it or don’t, it’s not true. It’s not that they can’t release the minutes. They can, if they want to. They just don’t want to.”
Purser said that when he mentioned his dilemma to another person who he did not name, that person asked what the county was trying to hide.
“And that’s what I’m asking,” Purser concluded. “What do you have to hide? I’m mad about it, I’ll be honest with you. I’m trying to do my job, and I can’t do it with the current stance that’s going on.”