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Hall's closed meeting vote may be illegal
Commissioners voted on Glades Reservoir funding
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The Hall County Board of Commissioners may have broken Georgia’s open meeting laws by voting behind closed doors on payments to the Glades Reservoir property owners, minutes from the closed session show.

Minutes obtained by The Times show commissioners voted in a closed session to pay $3 million to owners of the Glades Farm property, where the reservoir will be built, to reimburse them for money they spent to obtain a federal permit.

Chairman Tom Oliver made the motion to approve the payment. Commissioners Steve Gailey and Billy Powell voted with Oliver, while Commissioner Ashley Bell opposed, the minutes show.

Commissioners took no action to ratify the decision in an open session, which may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, said attorney David Hudson, counsel for the Georgia Press Association and an expert on the state’s sunshine laws.

“There is nothing that I know of that would allow the discussion of a ‘line of credit’ to take place in a closed meeting,” Hudson said. “Also, any action taken on such matters would also be unlawful in a closed meeting — action must be in a public meeting,” Hudson said. “Except for the acquisition of real estate, there are to be no votes in a closed session.”

County Attorney Bill Blalock disagreed, saying nothing illegal took place.

“They had to decide whether or not to agree to the settlement (with Glades) and they had to decide how they were going to pay for it,” Blalock said. “That’s why they opened the discussion on the line of credit. You do not have to go back out (and vote in public) except for personnel issues. ... There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with voting in executive session to settle it and to pay for it by extending the line of credit, in my opinion.”

Last week, commission candidates Scott Gibbs and Craig Lutz sent a letter to County Administrator Charley Nix questioning the validity of the commission’s decision to pay for about $3 million in permitting costs for the planned Glades Reservoir with a line of credit, until enough revenue for the county’s special purpose local option sales tax collected.

As a result of the letter, the commission agreed at its work session Monday to release the minutes of the private meeting. The commissioners will vote officially to do so Thursday.

Also at issue is whether the payment for the Glades Reservoir property can even be discussed in private.

Hudson said there must be a concrete legal action for a government to close a meeting to discuss potential litigation.

“Potential litigation must be an actual threat of a lawsuit by some individual or company. Just someone’s notion that there is a matter that might lead to litigation is not enough,” Hudson said.

Blalock pointed to two letters — dated Dec, 15, 2009, and Jan. 15, 2010 — that show the negotiations between the Glades Farm property owners and Hall County were potentially litigious.

Following the July 2009 ruling by Judge Paul Magnuson that could drastically reduce water withdrawals from Lake Lanier, the Glades Farm property owners asked the county to renegotiate their contract — shifting the permitting and construction responsibilities from Glades to the county.

“In light of the Magnuson ruling, we requested the suspension in order to re-evaluate the permitting and construction of the Glades Reservoir under new parameters that would yield significantly more water than currently engineered,” wrote Glades attorney G. Marcus Hodge in the Dec. 15 letter to Blalock. “To date, Glades and Hall County have failed to reach a mutual understanding regarding a restructuring of the Lease Management Agreement. Our client has instructed us to indefinitely suspend the permitting process if the Glades and the County fail to reach a mutual agreement by January 15, 2010.”

“In other words, we were given a deadline,” Blalock said of the letter. “It was clearly a matter that if we couldn’t get resolved there was going to be some litigation. This is not some fictional possibility.”

The Jan. 15 letter, an amendment to the Glades Reservoir Lease Management Agreement, sent by Oliver to Nichols, states the county will reimburse Glades for expenses incurred in “permitting efforts to date not to exceed $3,500,000.”

“This last issue with regard to the $3 million was a further negotiation of the agreement reached in January of this year,” Blalock said.

The minutes of the Sept. 8 meeting show the commissioners also discussed a handful of other items, including what departments will be moving into the recently purchased Liberty Mutual building, if initial construction costs for the sales tax funded North Hall park would also be charged on the line of credit and payments from Blackshear Place Baptist Church for their purchase of the old South Hall Community Center facility.

“Unless it is (1) discussion of some individual personnel matter; (2) discussion of existing or potential litigation with the government’s attorney present; or (3) acquisition of real estate by the government, there should be no closed meeting at all,” Hudson said.