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Transparency battles put citizens first

Clayton County commission Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson asks a question during the public interviews of fire chief candidates Nov. 5. Clayton News Daily used open records requests to gain a full list of applicants for the position as well as their background information. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Clayton County commission Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson asks a question during the public interviews of fire chief candidates Nov. 5. Clayton News Daily used open records requests to gain a full list of applicants for the position as well as their background information. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Clayton News Daily obtained this stack of county documents last month through multiple open records requests for various records. Many of the documents pertained to the county’s fire chief search. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

JONESBORO — Clayton County officials have, for the most part, been compliant with Clayton News Daily’s open records requests, but the past year has shown that quests for documents can sometimes be prolonged battles.

That has been punctuated in recent months as the newspaper has petitioned Forest Park officials to obtain access to documents detailing negotiations to settle a lawsuit filed by former Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams. The settlement cost the city $35,000 and town leaders have claimed it was negotiated by former City Manager John Parker.

Parker, however, has denied that assertion is true. News Daily reporter Kathy Jefcoats has been seeking the city documents detailing the negotiations since Aug. 21 in an attempt to confirm the city’s claims, but she has still not received them.

“It’s frustrating because Forest Park residents deserve to know who is responsible for spending their money,” said Jefcoats. “Officials came out so strongly against the settlement at first, claiming to not know how it happened, but now seem unwilling to help in getting the information out to residents on exactly who is responsible.”

The Forest Park case shows the importance of obtaining access to public documents for the purpose of sharing that information with readers. The newspaper has filed a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General’s office to gain access to the records after months of debating with the city over the documents.

The city argues the documents are protected under attorney-client privileges but attorney David Hudson, an expert in Georgia’s Open Records Law, said the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled otherwise on two occasions. Last week, Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter agreed with Hudson in a letter to Forest Park leaders.

“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 in his letter.

“Settlement offers from an opposing party in litigation falls into this category,” he added.

Jefcoats said the prolonged efforts to gain access to the documents, as well as having to take the extraordinary step of getting the Attorney General’s office involved have been disappointing but educational.

“I’ve been a reporter for more than 25 years and have never had to pursue an Open Records request this far,” said Jefcoats. “I believe the newspaper is working for the benefit of Forest Park residents, who deserve to know how this costly decision was reached, so I welcome the challenge. My desire in this, and every day, is to seek the truth and report it.”

Residents benefits from open records

But the Forest Park situation is a rare instance where Clayton News Daily has had to push a little harder to gain access to public records.

More often, the newspaper — in its dealings with county government — has found officials to be willing to comply with requests. The result has been a deeper understanding for residents about how decisions their elected leaders have made affects their daily lives.

The newspaper routinely asks County Commission Clerk Shelby Haywood for copies of resolutions and supporting documents from commission meetings. Getting a response is almost always a matter of waiting minutes rather than the three days Haywood has under the law to comply with the request.

Sometimes the information gleaned from those supporting documents has helped illustrate background or complete a picture. However, other times the county legislative requests included in the packets have revealed information that explained everything in a way that commissioners may not have addressed in open session.

Examples of information obtained through requesting those documents include MARTA’s plans to use $574,163 in federal money it received on the county’s behalf on other projects in metro Atlanta, a need to replace a county bridge that had been deemed unsafe for traffic, plans to set a new speed limit near a high school and plans to raise the speed limit on I-285.

“The more open elected officials are, the more buy-in they receive from citizens,” Clayton News Daily Editor Jim Zachary said. “People with nothing to hide, simply shouldn’t hide.”

But the county’s compliance with more formal, written open records requests has also helped the News Daily cover several stories this year.

Documents obtained through these requests allowed the newspaper to report on a history of disciplinary problems with Shada Starr, when the commission narrowly voted to circumvent its Civil Service Board and reinstate her to a position in the county’s Senior Services department. Starr had been fired in July because of “chronic absenteeism.”

Although the negotiations between Starr and the county cannot be released due to a confidentiality clause in their agreement, the newspaper used an open records request for her pay stubs to discover that the county paid her $2,499.94 — after taxes — upon her re-instatement in late September.

Documents obtained through open records requests last month also allowed the newspaper to be prepared for the naming of finalists for the county fire chief position. The newspaper had the applications of every candidate in hand before the finalists were announced and used information from the applications to immediately give readers a basic idea of who the finalists were.

The newspaper also obtained a copy of the personnel file for the lone in-house finalist, then-assistant Chief Landry Merkison, to delve deeper into his history when more in-depth profiles were done on each finalist. That gave the News Daily access to Merkison’s disciplinary and promotional history.

It also revealed new information about his background in the county through his original application for a firefighting position in 1996, and commendations and punishments he received over the years. Merkison was appointed chief by commissioners Nov. 5.

“Information is power and citizens should retain the power over their own government. That is the American way and citizens should have full access to documents held by local government,” Zachary said.

In general, the News Daily has found city governments to be easy to work with on open records issues despite the ongoing battle with Forest Park.

The newspaper has routinely been able to request and receive documents from the city of Jonesboro without any hassles. In the case of a Lee Street Park renovations survey conducted over the summer, Mayor Joy Day mailed a copy of the results to the newspaper before announcing they were ready.

Day has often told reporters from the newspaper they can have copies of records if they come by City Hall.

The newspaper has often also had more good luck than bad luck with open records requests in Morrow. Earlier this year, reporters were able to easily gain access, through an Open Records Request, to a tally sheet which revealed the Morrow City Council hired City Attorney Greg Hecht despite scoring him the lowest among four competing law firms.

Morrow City Clerk Evyonne Browning also attaches supporting documents to meeting agenda packets she sends to the newspaper and posts on the city’s website. It’s an agenda model also used by the Clayton County Board of Education.

But a situation involving an open records request to the city in May revealed there are sometimes gray areas in open records laws that leave the door open for debate. A request had been submitted for a background check on a city employee, after a copy of that person’s personnel file revealed officials had redacted the answer on his job application to a question about prior felony convictions.

Browning told the newspaper she could not release his background check report because doing so would infringe upon his “constitutional right to privacy.” That led to a case of dueling attorney opinions between David Hudson and Robert Quinn, an attorney for the city.

“Only outside confidential evaluations submitted to a government agency that are in a personnel record are exempt from disclosure,” said Hudson. “But there is nothing in the law that exempts a general ‘background check’ that an agency may have obtained in connection with a hiring decision.”

Quinn countered by arguing, “O.C.G.A. §35-3-34 provides that disclosure of GCIC (Georgia Crime Information Center) criminal background information to private individuals or businesses is authorized only if at the time of the request the requesting party provides the fingerprints of the person whose records are requested or provide a signed consent of the person whose records are requested on a form prescribed by the center which shall include such person’s full name, address, Social Security number and date of birth.

“The violation of this law is a misdemeanor,” he added.

Open Meetings issues

But, whereas open records requests have usually been responded to without frustration, reporters have not always been so lucky with open meetings issues. In some ways, elected officials — particularly the county commissioners — have moved toward being more open with their meetings.

After commission Chairman Jeff Turner took office in January, the commission began putting detailed summaries of contracts, budget amendments, ordinances and resolutions on their meeting agendas. Last week, Commissioner Sonna Singleton asked for similar detailed summaries of Human Resources Department requests on the agendas as well during a pre-meeting work session, and her colleagues quickly consented to do so.

But issues remain about executive sessions. Although they are not as common at the city council level, lengthy executive sessions are a regular occurrence at county commission and board of education meetings. Officials can go into executive sessions for personnel, litigation and land acquisition matters.

Commissioners did take one step towards transparency in October when they chose to interview the fire chief finalists in an open forum during a meeting. It was a rare step for a body that has traditionally interviewed finalists for department head positions in executive session.

However, when the time came to discuss the finalists after the interviews, commissioners retreated to executive session to debate who should be hired.

“Even if the law says they can go behind closed doors, why do elected officials do it if they are not ashamed and have nothing to conceal from the public?” Zachary asked.

While the law does give elected officials a small scope of reasons to go into executive session, open meetings experts such as Hudson and Ritter have in the past said they are not required to do so.

That’s an argument former Clayton County Housing Authority attorney George Glaze tried to make in May when the authority board wanted to discuss the contract to have Wade Starr as its permanent executive director. Glaze and Starr argued over whether the board should discuss the contract in open or closed session.

“Everything we’re talking about now, we can talk about in executive session,” Starr told the board.

Glaze responded, “But you don’t have to.”

The board sided with Starr and decided to discuss the issue in executive session. It then voted to fire Glaze and his son, Kirby Glaze, after it came out of executive session.

But some elected officials have argued the law won’t let them discuss personnel matters in public. Former News Daily education reporter Rachel Shirey ran into a case earlier this year where she had a school system leader make that argument.

Shirey, who is now the government reporter at the Henry Daily Herald, reported in February that school board Chairwoman Pam Adamson told residents during a board meeting that the body was required by law to keep personnel discussions restricted to executive sessions.

“We just do what we have to do in executive session,” said Adamson at the time. “It’s hard to rush people along, and frankly we don’t like to be rushed along if we’re discussing in executive session.”

Shirey said the school board’s executive sessions were frustrating because board members began every meeting with executive sessions that could sometimes last several hours. Some teachers and residents who attended the meetings would show signs of discomfort, such as sighing out loud while waiting for the board to come back into the open meeting, she said.

Some people would leave the meeting when executive session began so they could go get dinner because they felt they would have more than enough time to eat while school board members stayed behind closed doors, Shirey added.

When they came back into the public arena, their explanations of why they spent so much time behind closed doors weren’t forthcoming.

“When they would come back, they would basically say, if I remember this correctly, ‘We discussed personnel matters (and) let’s vote upon what we have discussed,’” said Shirey. “And that was that. They didn’t give you any kind of details. They wouldn’t give you anything, which I’ve actually discovered is illegal.

“Stefan Ritter said when you come back from executive session, you have to give enough information for the public to be able to identify what the issue is,” she added.

But beyond violating Georgia’s Open Meetings Law, Shirey said the school board’s executive sessions made her look at board members with suspicious eyes.

“For me, having those lengthy sessions was unnecessary,” said Shirey. “When you have those meetings for that long, it almost made me suspect that they were hearing more behind closed doors than they should have. Maybe they were hearing evidence, which they’re not supposed to hear, or maybe they were arguing.”

It didn’t help the board’s standing in a community already unnerved by the school system’s history of accreditation problems, either.

“I don’t think discussing certain items behind closed doors for that length of time did the education arena any good,” said Shirey. “It made people wary. It made people distrust them.”