The City of Morrow is not alone.
The Clayton County Commission, the Clayton County Board of Education and each municipal government should be paying close attention.
Few issues matter more than government transparency.
It is not too late for the Morrow City Council.
They should do the right thing.
The council should apologize to the citizens of Morrow, stop defending an illegal closed-door meeting and make yet another pledge toward openness in government.
By doing so, council members can avoid costly legal fees.
They can also avoid potential fines for a willful violation of the state’s sunshine law.
They might also still have time to avoid being soundly rejected by voters in the next muncipal election.
If council members have been advised by an outside attorney they have not violated the Open Meetings Act then they most likely have gotten very bad advice.
Attorneys will always hide themselves behind attorney-client privilege.
They will also often tell clients exactly what they expect to hear.
After all, despite all the legal mumbo jumbo about standards of conduct, professional responsibility and maintaining a license to practice law, at the end of the day attorneys are businessmen selling a service.
In this case, Morrow City Council members may not be getting their money’s worth.
And who is paying the bill?
This is important.
Are the citizens of Morrow paying legal fees to defend wrong-headed actions, closed-door meetings and poor legal advice?
All money in the city coffers belongs to the citizens of Morrow.
Citizens have every right to have a say in how their own money is being spent.
The city had an attorney.
She washed her hands of the debacle.
She is probably the smartest person in the room and most likely understands the City Council is on shaky ground.
When the state’s Open Meetings Act was rewritten in April of this year it more clearly defined what can and cannot be done and what must be done in executive session.
Here is what the Morrow City Council needs to know:
• The law says that arguments in favor or against disciplining a city employee or officer cannot be heard in executive session.
• The law says that evidence against an employee or city official cannot be received or heard in executive session. That would include the contents of the letter Michael McLaughlin wrote making accusations against the mayor and comments Mayor Pro Tem Jeanell Bridges made containing allegations against the mayor.
• The law says that no votes can be taken and no decisions can be made in executive session, that would include a unanimous decision to discipline the mayor. If council members are going to try and say that the decision was not reached in the executive session but was reached in some other way outside of a vote in an open public meeting, then that also is illegal.
• The law says that minutes of executive sessions must be kept.
This is serious.
Virlyn Slaton, Larry Ferguson, Bob Huie and Bridges need to take this very seriously. It is not too late to stop going down this path you have started down, reverse yourselves and do what is right by the citizens of Morrow. We sincerely hope you can turn this around. We are not in any way against you. This is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong. It is a matter of what is right.
It’s not too late to make it right.
We promise you, we will be the first ones to applaud you and give you credit for doing the right thing.
The office of the Attorney General and the district attorney need to make a statement that will resonate with the City Council, with the county commission, with the school board and with every elected official in Clayton County.
This issue is bigger than Morrow.
The assumption should always be that all actions of government are open.
Transparency should not only be the rule of law, it should be standard operating procedure.
Closed-door sessions for very specific reasons should be the exception not the rule.
However, throughout our county executive sessions are about as common as dirt.
Governmental bodies hide themselves behind the closed door of executive sessions almost every time they meet.
That was never the intent of the General Assembly when exemptions were made in the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Citizens of Clayton County, you should know that the law does not require elected officials to go into executive session. It allows them to do so for very specific reasons, but they don’t have to do it.
They choose to.
That begs the question: Why?
Why would a public official want to go behind closed doors?
Is it because they are about to do something they don’t want the public, or the press, to know about?
Is it because they want the freedom to say things they would not dare say before voters?
Is it because they are ashamed of their actions?
Is it because they do not want to take ownership of their decisions?
It most certainly is not because they want to be amenable and held accountable.
Transparency is transparency.
What is happening in Morrow is not the least bit transparent.
Closed door meetings are not transparent, at all.
City Manager Jeff Eady has publicly and privately expressed that he is committed to the concept of transparency. We commend him for making those statements.
Now is the time to put words into action. Perhaps he can show strong leadership and demonstrate a commitment to the best interests of citizens by being a calming influence, helping to stop this railroading of the mayor, giving the City Council better insight on the April 2012 revisions in the Open Meetings Act and turning negatives into positives.
Clearly, when dealing with the dollar amounts in a real estate transaction, there might be legitimate reasons to have some discussions that would not be initially disclosed until the deal is ready to be finalized. We get that.
Also, when discussing a legal strategy in an actual lawsuit, there may be times the governmental client needs to be able to speak with its attorney in private. Those times, however, should be few and far in between, especially when government is operating above board and legally.
Dealing with a personnel matter of a rank and file employee where there is sensitive personal information that is not anyone else’s business might warrant protecting that individual, but only in regard to that sensitive personal information.
However, all these should be exceptional cases, limited in scope and not very often.
Beyond this, there is really only one reason we could think of that elected officials might want to meet in secret — they have something to hide.
Citizens of Morrow and Clayton County, government belongs to you.
The business officials are discussing is your business.
The money they are spending is your money.
We are calling for more citizen activism.
Show up at meetings.
Ask to see the books.
Require that your business be conducted out in the open.
Remember, you put them in office. They are working for you.
— Editor Jim Zachary