Attorney: City not responsible for DDA recordsPhoto obtained via the city of Avondale Estates website.
The City of Avondale Estates Downtown Development Authority meets at city hall and has the power to borrow money, execute contracts and purchase property to promote redevelopment. Its members are appointed by the city’s mayor and board of commissioners.
But the city has provided confusing information about who is responsible for keeping DDA records. While the city has released some DDA records in response to a records request, the city’s attorney has recently argued that the DDA, not the city, is responsible for maintaining these documents.
The Attorney General’s office says technically, the city is right. Transparency advocates say that local governments shouldn’t use legal technicalities to avoid releasing information.
Hollie Manheimer, Executive Director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the massive rewrite of the law in 2012 was supposed to provide the public with better access to records.
“The purpose of the open records statute … is to encourage the citizen to access information, not to encourage public agencies to avoid release,” Manheimer said.
In 2007, the DDA signed a lease with Century/AG Avondale, LLC for property that was once known as the Tomahawk Printing Building. The developer’s plans for a massive downtown development project went bust and the company filed for bankruptcy.
Then, in 2013 Mayor Ed Rieker purchased the property for from Cleveland Construction, one of Century’s creditors, and renamed it Tudor Square. In all, Rieker bought four parcels from the company at a cost of about $540,000. Since then, businesses have been moving into property that the mayor owns in the heart of the city’s downtown.
Back in May, Decaturish filed two different records requests related to this transaction. The city received a request for an electronic copy of minutes of the Downtown Development Authority and City Commission, and a request to inspect the lease agreement between the DDA and Century.
City Attorney Stephen Quinn responded by saying that retrieving the minutes in electronic format would cost $660.15, but that the hard copies of the minutes could be inspected for free. As for the lease, Avondale Estates’ response was, “The City does not possess any documents responsive to this request.”
During a recent routine search of property records filed with DeKalb County, Decaturish found a copy of the lease that the city said it did not have. Quinn said the city doesn’t keep DDA records, something city officials declined to mention in May when they provided the minutes of DDA meetings.
“The DDA is autonomous from the City and does not need any approval from the City to enter into a lease,” Quinn said. “The DDA is not funded with City tax dollars and the City has no control over the DDA’s activities. Likewise, the City is not responsible for maintaining the DDA’s records. The DDA is an independent State Authority.”
The Attorney General’s Office says that technically the city’s attorney is right and the DDA should process requests for its records, even though the city has responded to prior requests for DDA documents. Additionally, the city’s website provides no information about how to file a records request with the DDA.
Jim Zachary, director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, said that, “Any time officials deny access to a record or make it difficult to obtain, you have to ask the question ‘what are they trying to hide?'”
“Any attempt to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings Act should be viewed as a violation of the act, but more importantly should be viewed as a violation of the public trust,” Zachary said. “When an appointed board member, a government staff person or an elected official has to rely on technicalities and loopholes to either deny access or make it more difficult for any resident to obtain a public record, it is obvious they are not acting in the public’s best interest. In this case, if the city held the record, it should have simply given it to the requestor.”
The city is represented by the Wilson, Morton & Downs law firm, which also provides legal counsel to the city of Decatur and its school system. Bob Wilson, a partner in the firm who also handles some of the work from Avondale Estates, recently called out the state Attorney General for failing to provide a public record.
Attorney General Sam Olens did not disclose a memo that alleged Gov. Nathan Deal’s staff tried to tamper with an ethics investigation in 2012. WSB-TV interviewed Wilson, who said that the AG should’ve turned over the document.
“When you start playing hide the ball, and you stand behind technicalities and put yourself on a piece of thin ice, eventually it’s going fall through on you,” Wilson told the TV station.