AG’s Office orders Forest Park to respond to allegation it violated Open Records Act

City denies newspaper access to records

ATLANTA — The state Attorney General’s Office has ordered Forest Park attorneys to respond to Clayton News Daily’s allegations of noncompliance with the Open Records Act.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter has given the city seven days to respond to the allegation related to an Aug. 21 request by Clayton News Daily for documents in a $35,000 settlement agreement with former City Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams.

More than six weeks after the request, the city denied it, asserting attorney-client privilege. However, David E. Hudson, an Augusta attorney who is an expert in the state’s Open Records Act, disagreed.

“There have been two Georgia cases, one federal and one Superior Court, that have held that settlement documents must be provided under the Open Records Act by a local government,” said Hudson in August. “The settlement documents are not protected by any ‘attorney-client privilege’ as they are between the city and the opposing party. Documents protected by the ‘attorney-client privilege’ are only those that are held by one side of a case and not disclosed to anyone else.”

While Ritter states in his letter to City Attorney Steve Fincher that he does not assume the city violated the act or that the alleged facts are true, he asserts the same position held by Hudson.

“Please note, in this regard, that while communications between a city attorney and the city officials he or she represents in litigation may be privileged (depending on with whom else they are shared, etc.), communications with a third person whom the attorney does not represent in this action are not privileged,” said Ritter. “Settlement offers from an opposing party in litigation falls into this category.”

Furthermore, Ritter states that “if the city has settlement offers or other communications that it made to or received from or on (behalf of) Ms. Brandee Williams, those documents are likely open, and I ask that you specifically address this in your response. If this is simply an oversight by the City, I ask the city to produce the documents forthwith.”

Mayor David Lockhart denied knowing about the settlement until Williams made an appearance at an Aug. 5 meeting. Lockhart and council allowed Williams to take the floor and deliver a monologue summing up her issues with the city over the years and begging to be allowed to run for office.

Williams was ousted from office in July 2011. Under the terms, she is not allowed to run for five years.

Lockhart went on to accuse former City Manager John Parker of orchestrating the settlement without the knowledge of mayor and council.

“Did anyone on this council agree to a settlement or authorize a settlement?” said Lockhart at the Aug. 19 meeting. No one spoke. “Nor did I. I knew nothing about it until she told us.”

Lockhart threatened legal action against the insurance company for authorizing a settlement without permission from the city. However, it is not known if the insurance company has explained the settlement.

Parker took issue with the accusation during the Aug. 19 meeting. Parker said as city manager, he could only make recommendations, not final decisions. He said he thought it financially prudent to settle with Williams for $10,000 to keep the city from incurring more fees from a protracted legal battle.

“We discussed $10,000 being less than what it would cost to go to court,” said Parker in August. “I felt there was nothing she actually deserved but it was cheaper on the city with the insurance premiums.”

Despite the May 7 email making the $10,000 offer, which Parker admitted he sent, court documents show the $35,000 settlement was reached with Williams June 28 — Parker’s last day as city manager.

“That offer was made to the insurance company attorneys, which wasn’t communicated to me because I checked,” Parker said. “John Parker as city manager doesn’t have the authority to make or accept an offer. I can only make a recommendation. If the $10,000 was accepted, then it was up to the council to accept or deny it. I did not make that offer.”

City Manager Frank Brandon has said he “just wants the whole thing to go away” and council has not addressed the question of who authorized the settlement since August.

Anyone who “knowingly or willfully” violates the Open Records Act can be fined up to $1,000 for the first violation and $2,500 for the second.