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Habersham officials violated open meetings, records laws, court rules
County faces $41K in fines, plus legal fees, over Airport Authoritys special meetings, emails
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A judge has found that Habersham County officials failed to comply with the state’s open meetings and records laws.

Gainesville attorney Julius Hulsey, who represented local residents and a government employee whistleblower who brought the suit against the Habersham Board of Commissioners and Airport Authority, said Habersham officials have been ordered to pay legal fees and civil fines in excess of $41,000.

“Most, if not all, of this award will have to be paid by Habersham County taxpayers because of the county commissioners’ failure to comply with the law,” Hulsey said.

The Airport Authority was alleged to have held special meetings in February, June, July and September of 2014 without properly announcing them to the public, either by failing to publish notices in the local newspaper or failing to post notices in a timely manner at the location where such meetings were held.

The lawsuit claimed that officials improperly called closed meetings to discuss a contract for an airport fixed-base operator and used private email addresses to communicate and share records in an effort to circumvent open records laws.

Hulsey told The Times last summer that the case included elements that resemble Hillary Clinton’s imbroglio over using private email accounts, as well as similarities to allegations that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady destroyed his cellphone and evidence that could have implicated him in deflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage.

Commissioners and members of the Airport Authority denied the allegations from the start.

Habersham County Manager Phil Sutton said Friday that it is undecided whether the county will appeal.

“Many of the accusations ... the judge did not find to be factual or problematic,” Sutton said.

Additionally, Sutton said there was no malicious intent to withhold information or hide meetings from public review that did constitute violations.

The number of records requests were so frequent and redundant that time delays arose, Sutton added, and not posting information about meeting times was merely an oversight.

In his final judgment issued this week, Senior Judge Robert Struble wrote that although some violations did not cause substantial harm, they also “cannot be condoned.”

Sutton said the county will conduct training with local boards and authorities to educate members about the intricacies of open meetings and records laws to “avoid any technical violations in the future.”

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