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Attorney general investigates county’s handling of agendas

Actions found not ‘prosecutable;’ commission will be monitored

POSTED: January 10, 2014 12:22 a.m.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners is not guilty of any “prosecutable” violations of open meetings laws related to how it manages its agenda, the state attorney general’s office said after an investigation last month.

However, the attorney general’s office said it will continue to monitor commissioners’ actions in light of questions raised about their meetings.

The office initiated an investigation after becoming aware of a story and editorial in The Times questioning the practice of taking action on issues not listed on agendas provided to the public and media.

The initial story on Oct. 20 detailed five issues that were not on agendas prepared in advance of the meetings but on which commissioners took action. One of those involved organizational structure of the county library system and another suspension of negotiations between the county and Lula for sewer services.

In response to the story, commissioners made a special point at a meeting to take action on an item not listed on the agenda, unanimously approving the celebration of Oct. 25 as a special day.

The Times responded in an Oct. 27 editorial titled “A self-serving agenda,” which called the vote to celebrate Oct. 25 a “feeble effort by county commissioners to defend voting on issues not listed on meeting agendas ...”

That editorial is what caught the eye of Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter, who sent a letter dated Oct. 31 to County Attorney Bill Blalock, requesting an explanation behind the commission’s conduct. Ritter also asked for complete draft and final agendas for commission meetings held in October, September and August.

“...The article asserts that in response to complaints it was violating the law in this regard, the Board of Commissioners approved a motion to honor Oct. 25 as a special day worthy of recognition, ‘to prove they could’ even though such an issue was not on the agenda,” Ritter’s letter reads in part.

Blalock responded to Ritter’s letter Nov. 8, stating the agenda items in question could have easily been simple directives from the commissioners to county staff; there was no need to have them on the agenda.

“With regard to the first item dealing with a proposed change in the organizational structure of the library system, the information contained in The Times’ editorial is erroneous,” Blalock’s letter reads. “Commissioner Gibbs did not move to change the organizational structure of the library system. His motion was simply that the county administrator and the county attorney be instructed to look into such possibility and report back to the county commission at a later date.

“This motion required no further action by members of the commission and the request very well could have been made by any individual member of the commission or, for that matter, the county administrator.”

Another issue addressed in the article was a motion by Commissioner Billy Powell on July 25, 2013, to end negotiations over an intergovernmental agreement with Lula about providing sewer to the Gateway Industrial Centre and the Ga. 365 corridor. During that meeting, Powell read from a prepared statement, and a news release was distributed.

South Hall resident Phyllis Mercer reached out to the attorney general’s office with the same concern of the commissioners violating open meetings laws, in an email dated Nov. 24.

Ritter responded Dec. 17 by attaching the two letters between himself and Blalock and a detailed email reading, in part, “in the present matter the alleged agenda violations are not prosecutable.”

“We are concerned any time public officials do not take their duties seriously, and it is evident that the motion to ‘honor Oct. 25 as a special day worthy of recognition’ was a flippant act,” Ritter wrote in his email to Mercer. “Nonetheless, it is not one that rises to the level of a violation of the law we can or should prosecute. The other alleged violations of the agenda requirements of the Open Meetings Act are addressed in Mr. Blalock’s letter.”

Mercer said she’s satisfied by Ritter’s response, but hopes this serves as a lesson to commissioners, some of whom she said are too quick to hold grudges.

“They need to better ensure that they are listening to the citizens and they treat us with respect and the dignity that we deserve when we even go to speak with them in their meetings,” Mercer said. “There are times when that even has not been evident. Again, it’s this flippant, childlike approach.”

She pointed out commissioners have an opportunity at the beginning of each meeting to add items to the agenda.

“Clearly when you’ve got prepared statements that you walk in with, you had to have known it before the meeting,” she added.

Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said the entire matter is “much ado about nothing.”

“They are transparent,” he said about the commissioners and government staff. “The motions were made open. I think if it were a major issue that may be a problem, but ... this was fluff.”

Mecum said there will be no changes to how meeting agendas are developed.

“In fact, we went back and looked at the attorney general (Sam Olens) when he was the county commission chair in Cobb County,” Mecum added. “He did it the same way we do. There’s no difference.

“You have to be a little careful about pointing fingers at others. There’s not that much to it.”

Attorney General Director of Communications Lauren Kane said the office continues to encourage inquiries by the media and citizens.

“Although we ultimately determined that the county commission did not commit a technical violation of the Open Meetings Act, we appreciate the questionable situation being brought to our attention,” she wrote. “We take our responsibility to enforce the sunshine laws seriously, and if any future concerns regarding the Hall County Commission are brought to our attention, we will examine them carefully.”


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