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Sunday Morning Meditation – Unnecessary Secrecy

D'ish Decatur

Sunday Morning Meditation – Unnecessary Secrecy

Decatur City Hall.
Decatur City Hall

Decatur City Hall

This post has been updated.

Governments are owned by the people they serve.

The people may not realize it, or may not feel that it is truly theirs, but it is.

Because governments are owned by the people they serve, it is important that a government’s actions are transparent. The state’s Sunshine Laws are intended to ensure government is open and accessible. The laws are not perfect. They contain caveats and shadowy areas that governments can use to withhold information from the public. Ideally, governments would err on the side of transparency.

But concern for the public’s right to know is a distant worry for our elected officials in Decatur. As our community gears up for an important election on Nov. 3, I’ve noticed a trend toward even more unnecessary secrecy from the city’s leadership.

The Decatur City Commission recently appointed a replacement for Kecia Cunningham, who resigned her commission seat in order to pursue a career opportunity. The person they picked is an undeniably fine candidate. Look up the definition of “mensch” and you’ll probably find a picture of Bill Bolling, the founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Commissioners unanimously approved his appointment.

But the fine candidate commissioners selected emerged through a flawed process. Commissioners said nothing before nominating and voting for Bolling, and did not allow public comment. Prior to filling the seat, the city did not actively solicit nominations for the job. Indeed, Bolling told Decaturish city leaders approached him, not the other way around.

Commissioner Scott Drake, who is up for re-election this year, provided an interesting defense of how commissioners went about replacing Cunningham.

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“We appoint all of our commissions, our boards,” Commissioner Scott Drake said during the Sept. 8 meeting. He said the commission vets candidates before making any appointment. “I think the way we approached this was similar to that. There were a number of names put out there, a number of conversations … we approached it very similar to the way we approach other things.”

It should be noted that Drake and other commissioners elaborated on their selection of Bolling only after prodding by Decaturish and another member of the audience.

With all due respect, Commissioner Drake, this is not a seat on the city’s Planning Commission or an advisory board. Cunningham gave up an elected position, and she was chosen by the voters in her district, not other commissioners. I fail to see any reason why commissioners could not have at least pretended to care about giving residents in District 2 a chance to weigh in on who should represent them for the remainder of Cunningham’s term. It’s not like the commission was putting up an inferior candidate. I’m sure Bolling would’ve stood up to scrutiny.

It was also clear that commissioners had already made up their minds about selecting Bolling before they took a vote on the matter. That, of course, suggests there was discussion among commissioners behind the scenes about filling the seat. No need to probe whether those discussions violated the Open Meetings Act. There are a million ways to work around it without breaking the law. But there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The commission’s selection of Bolling was not in keeping with the law’s spirit or with the principles of transparency in general.

Dear city commissioners, the rightness of your decision does not excuse the wrongness of your actions.

But Decatur’s City Commission isn’t the only public entity around here getting a little too cute with interpretations of the Open Meetings Act. Down the street the Decatur School Board has taken to holding closed-door meetings in the office of its attorney Bob Wilson, whose firm also represents the city of Decatur.

I think the School Board holding meetings in its attorney’s office is entirely inappropriate and wholly unnecessary. While holding closed meetings at the attorney’s office might sound innocent enough, it has troubling implications.

The state’s Open Meetings Law requires a public vote to go into a closed-door meeting, known as an executive session. A public vote would imply that the vote would be held in a place where the School Board traditionally conducts its business, like the City Schools of Decatur’s central offices on Electric Avenue. But the School Board has taken the law’s silence on where the board should meet as an excuse to hide within the confines of Wilson’s office, located on Clairemont Avenue.

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the board is using these private meetings to interview candidates to replace Superintendent Phyllis Edwards, whose contract expires at the end of this year. I don’t disagree that the interviews should be private and the law clearly allows for it. What hasn’t been explained is how having those interviews at Wilson’s office serves any purpose other than to discourage the public from attending the public portion of the meeting they have the right to attend by law.

If the intent is to keep the candidates’ names a secret, it’s not working. I’ve already heard the names of two potential finalists, and I’m sure I’ll hear more before the interview process is over. I’m not reporting them yet, because I actually do respect the need for some confidentiality in the hiring process. It’s too bad the School Board doesn’t show a reciprocal respect for the public’s right to attend the public portions of its meetings.

But what really bothers me is that the board can and has taken action on other matters at the meetings held at the office of its attorney. Chairman Garrett Goebel said that during the Sept. 8 executive session, the board took action on two “unanticipated” personnel matters: putting a teacher on paid administrative leave and releasing another employee from his contract. While these actions are seemingly minor, the context is important. Ordinarily this would be handled in an open meeting at central office and these items would be on the School Board’s agenda. That didn’t happen. There’s no obvious reason why, considering the School Board held its regular meeting a few hours later at the board’s central office. Surely, it could’ve been added to the agenda and voted on then.

Now we are setting precedents. The board continues to meet at its attorney’s office and is now taking action at those meetings, informing the public after the fact. It’s similar to how the board voted on June 10 to place property for a school under contract but didn’t inform the public about it until contacted by the press a week later. At least that meeting was held at central office, not that anyone was there at 12:45 a.m. when the vote occurred.

To its credit, CSD has at least gotten timelier about informing the public of what it did when people weren’t paying any attention. I certainly don’t doubt that the School Board members have good intentions and are acting in a way they feel is in the best interests of the people they serve.

But the fundamental problem of unnecessary secrecy in Decatur remains.

Some of you will say I’m nitpicking, or that elected leaders in Decatur should be given some latitude because our government is functional compared to DeKalb County. The “So what?” attitude in this community is pervasive. It is enabling our leaders to continue pushing the boundaries of what the law allows them to do.

Today it’s filling commission vacancies and going under contract to buy property with taxpayer money. If we’re comfortable with letting that happen without input or oversight, please tell me where you draw the line.