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Keeping The Public In The Dark — By Tommy Purser

As a general rule, I don’t typically raise public objections when our local elected officials violate the Georgia Open Meetings/Open Records Law (Georgia Code 50-18-70) but on some occasions my patience gets pushed.
That happened at the December meeting of the Jeff Davis County Commission when the commissioners invited a member of the general public to talk with them during a closed meeting (known to elected officials by the euphemism “executive session”). That person, a county employee, was allowed into the meeting while the rest of the public, including me, were asked to cool our heels in the hallway well beyond hearing distance of the meeting.
It’s not the first time that’s happened with one of our elected bodies. A few months ago, the Hazlehurst City Council went into closed session to discuss “real estate” and invited a member of the general public (who was interested in buying the real estate in question) into their closed meeting while everyone else had to remain in the meeting room out of earshot of the closed meeting.
As one person put it to me, “That was a flagrant violation of the open meetings act.” I agreed. But I wasn’t at that meeting so I let it slide. That turned out to be unfortunate.
Let me be clear about this. The Georgia Open Meetings Act does not give any agency subject to the act the right to invite people into their closed meetings. The law is clear on that:
“…. executive sessions shall be permitted for: ….(2) Meetings when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, hiring, disciplinary action or dismissal, or periodic evaluation or rating of a public officer or employee or interviewing applicants for the position of the executive head of an agency. This exception shall not apply to the receipt of evidence or when hearing argument on personnel matters, including whether to impose disciplinary action or dismiss a public officer or employee or when considering or discussing matters of policy regarding the employment or hiring practices of the agency. The vote on any matter covered by this paragraph shall be taken in public and minutes of the meeting as provided in this chapter shall be made available. Meetings by an agency to discuss or take action on the filling of a vacancy in the membership of the agency itself shall at all times be open to the public as provided in this chapter;”
There are a couple of phrases in that verbatim recitation of that portion of the law that need emphasis:
1. “when discussing or deliberating” and,
2. “This exception shall not apply to the receipt of evidence or when hearing argument on personnel matters….”
In their zeal to keep the public in the dark about how they are conducting the public’s business, elected officials love to cite “personnel matters” as a reason for closing their meetings to the public. “Personnel matters” can cover a wide range of topics, including “receipt of evidence” or “hearing argument” even though those are specifically excluded by the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
When the Georgia Legislature first decided to make an open meetings/open records act part of Georgia law, they did so at the insistence of the Georgia Press Association. I was serving on the Georgia Press Association Board of Directors at that time. That was a long time ago but not long enough for me to forget the intent of the legislation we helped create.
The late Denmark Groover of Macon was one of the principal participants in crafting that legislation when he served in the Georgia House of Representatives. He explained the wording in the law by saying elected bodies were like a jury in a legal case. All the evidence is heard in open court and then the elected officials (the jury) retire to “discuss and deliberate” the matter in private.
And, as a side note, most of our local elected officials subscribe to the belief that they are REQUIRED to go into closed session to discuss anything that has to do with personnel. That’s not true. They CAN go into closed session but they don’t HAVE to.
The intent of the Georgia Open Meetings/Open Records Act is to allow the public to know what’s going on with their business. I wish more elected officials would honor that intent.

2 Comments

  1. Andrea Lynn White Brooks on February 14, 2024 at 5:27 pm

    Well, well… It appears as though Jeff Davis County NOT ONLY violates CIVIL rights and laws… SMH! I expected better from a community that seems to have had this problem in the past….

  2. Andrea Lynn White Brooks on February 14, 2024 at 5:28 pm

    It appears as though… No changes are gonna get made this way…

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