Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter educates a room of journalists on the Open Meetings and Open Records laws at a Gerogia Press Association seminar Thursday. (Photo: Rachel Shirey)
ATLANTA — The Georgia Attorney General’s office said this week that when local officials decide to deliberate the public’s business behind closed doors — for the most part — they are not required to do so.
“When they go into executive session, they are electing to do so,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter told journalists Thursday.
He went on to explain the law does permit local officials to go into executive session to discuss certain personnel issues, tangible threats of litigation or the acquisition of property, but added those exceptions to the state’s open meetings law are often abused.
“There are routine violations at the local government level,” Ritter said.
He encouraged the media, and all Georgia residents, to contact the AG’s office regarding any possible violations of the state’s open meetings and open records legislation. “If we think you are right, we will contact them,” Ritter said.
He said that unlike many states, Georgia law provides for substantial fines for violations of what is commonly known as the sunshine law.
“The first violation is $1,000 and $2,500 for each additional violation,” he said, adding that the fines can be cumulative.
For example, a violation of the open meetings act could result in one fine for discussing business outside of a public meeting, another fine for a violation of the public notice requirement and another fine for a failure to keep minutes of a meeting.
“It adds up,” Ritter said.
Ritter was very specific that any time a quorum of members of an elected body gets together and discusses the public’s business outside of the public purview, and not as part of a legally called meeting, it constitutes a violation.
“If you have a city council of five people and three go out to lunch together and discuss business, that’s a quorum and that’s illegal,” he said.
Regarding the use of executive sessions, Ritter said that while state law allows executive sessions for real estate transactions, litigation and personnel issues that all “binding votes” must be taken in open meetings with enough information given for the public to identify the issue.
When asked if local officials could simply come out of executive session and quickly vote to take action on what they had discussed in private without explaining what they are actually voting on, he said they cannot.
Ritter said that following an executive session, officials must reconvene in an open meeting and normal parliamentary procedure should be followed, viz. There must a formal motion, a second to the motion, a time for discussion, followed by a public vote.
He also said that local officials should not go beyond what the law permits and should limit their executive sessions to only what is permitted under the open meetings act.
Personnel policy decisions, general discussion about property acquisition that does not pertain to actual transactions or the the mere possibility of a lawsuit when the local government has not been notified of any actual litigation, are not discussions that should be taking place in executive session he advised.
“Personnel meetings in executive sessions are limited to two things — discussions among the board, commission, whoever it is, discussions among those members on a specific personnel issue or to interview candidates of an executive head,” Ritter said, adding that the board can’t receive evidence behind closed doors.
“They are not entitled to close those, they are open,” he said.
The board has to receive a complaint first, which is an open public record, then they have to receive information regarding the complaint, which is also open, and then they can meet in executive session to discuss what the board thinks of the matter, he said.
Ritter emphasized that residents should have recourse when they believe the state’s open meetings or open records laws have been violated, saying that he is the point of contact at the AG’s office for alleged violations.
He pointed out that a public document is a recording of any kind of information — paper, power point, electronic versions, tape recording, video recording, post it notes, texts, email, data in servers, drafts and more.
“If it’s government business, the record is open regardless of the equipment it’s on,” Ritter said.
He emphasized a public official can’t video record meetings and use personal equipment expecting that information to be exempt from the Open Records Act.
Attorney General Sam Olens’ official government website says, “Upon receiving a complaint from a Georgia citizen, attorneys at the Department of Law work to ensure that local governments provide all the access to meetings and records that Georgia citizens are entitled to under the law. If local governments fail to fulfill their obligations under the Open Meetings and Open Records acts, our office can initiate legal action to force the local government to obey Georgia’s sunshine laws.”
Ritter’s comments regarding open government were made at a Georgia Press Association seminar conducted at the GPA educational educational facility in Atlanta.
Henry Daily Herald government reporter Rachel Shirey contributed to this report.