Whitfield officials' private meeting legal, but questioned

Whitfield officials' private meeting legal, but questioned

September 7th, 2011 by Mariann Martin in News

Mike Babb

Mike Babb

DALTON, Ga. - A private meeting last week with four elected officials from three boards did not violate Georgia open meetings law, but a state advocate for open government questioned why the meeting was not public.

Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb, County Commissioner Robby Staten, Whitfield County school board Chairman Louis Fordham and Dalton city school board Chairman Steve Williams attended a meeting Aug. 29 to discuss various options about local sales tax increases, according to those attending.

Six other people attended the meeting, most of them county employees. They included William Bronson, publisher of the Dalton Daily Citizen; Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Danny Hayes; County Administrator Mark Gibson; Ron Hale, the county's financial officer; county attorney Robert Smalley; and Kenny Sheppard, county school finance director.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said Georgia open meeting laws do not address meetings among various agencies, unless a quorum of an individual public agency attends the meeting. But Manheimer said the public is best served by public meetings.

"The purpose of the open meetings act is to provide the public the opportunity to review the actions of its elected officials," Manheimer wrote in an email. "To the extent any members of any one public agency meet with some members of another public agency, this surely seems like important public business in which citizens would have a keen interest."

Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who opposes the sales tax increases and was not invited to the meeting, also questioned why officials did not meet publicly.

Babb said there was no discussion of a public meeting and noted the meeting did not violate Georgia law. He said he agreed for the meeting to be held at county offices after the publisher of the Dalton Daily Citizen suggested the meeting.

Officials decided to have fewer than a quorum of members attend so the meeting would not need to be public, Babb said. It also was doubtful whether all the elected officials could have met on such short notice, he said.

"No decisions were made in the meeting other than the Board of Commissioners would review the county needs and consider the options," Babb said. "Since none of the boards had a quorum present, there was no way to influence votes."

The meeting lasted about an hour, and no minutes were taken, Babb said. The discussion centered on the needs for a 1 percent county sales tax, whether to separate the two referendums for local sales tax increases and if county government should ask for a one-year or two-year tax, he said.

The night of the meeting, county commissioners tabled a vote on asking for a sales tax referendum, but held a meeting two days later in which they passed a resolution for a two-year sales tax increase referendum. School board members since have rescinded their resolution for a 1-percent sales tax referendum.

Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, agreed the meeting did not violate Georgia law, but declined to comment further about that specific meeting.

Olens has championed open government since he took office this year and helped draft the proposed legislation that overhauls Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records laws. State legislators expect to take up the bill next year.