Dear Decaturish – Unlawful secrecy followed by silence in AvondalePhoto obtained via the city of Avondale Estates website.
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A violation of the Open Meetings Act does not result in anyone getting arrested or going to jail. It might be easy to look at the Avondale Estates Downtown Development Authority’s recent violation and assume from the absence of any heavy-handed punishment or strongly-worded admonishment that it is not a big deal.
In reality, a Georgia Attorney General’s investigation reveals what appears to be a serious problem.
The Open Meetings Act exists to protect the basic rights and expectations of citizens to have their public officials conduct the public’s business in public. But on January 7, for the second time in recent months, DDA members illegally went behind closed doors to interview potential appointees to their board. Prior to the meeting, I sent an email to board members and explained how they were breaking the law.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act clearly states, “Meetings by an agency to discuss or take action on the filling of a vacancy in the membership of the agency itself shall at all times be open to the public…” I sent this quote to the DDA as well as a link to the law on the state website. Immediately prior to the closed-door session I repeated my concerns in person and asked why they believed they had the legal authority to kick the public out of the room.
To my surprise, they revealed they were ignoring my warning under the direction of City Manager Clai Brown.
The Open Meetings Act is not a guideline nor a suggestion, it is a law. Elected and appointed officials are required to know it and follow it. Paid city professionals like Mr. Brown are held to even higher standards because they are supposed to be our watchdogs, guarding the interests of the citizens who pay them.
I filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General which prompted the investigation and unfortunately, the DDA was saddled with the official blame. In my opinion, current DDA members are new to their positions and probably the least culpable. Not only were they trusting Mr. Brown’s professional guidance, they were also acting with the cooperation and endorsement of the Board of Mayor and Commissioners.
This is an ongoing concern in our city that continues to go unaddressed. When we needed someone to protect the rights of the public and uphold our expectations of inclusion and transparency, there was apparently no one at Avondale Estates City Hall with the knowledge or the interest to do so. We deserve to know why.
At the end of her comments in the DDA case, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo writes, “our office offers training sessions and presentations on the Open Records and Open Meetings Acts.” It’s hard to tell if our elected officials are taking the hint. The Attorney General’s letter of findings was delivered on January 26 and so far there has been no comment from anyone at Avondale Estates City Hall nor any acknowledgement that the violation even happened.
– David Mattingly