Forest Park officials refuse to release documents

Newspaper seeks settlement agreement

FOREST PARK — The state’s leading autority on open government has said the city of Forest Park is not complying with the state’s sunshine laws.

City officials have refused to cough up records requested by the Clayton News Daily in accordance with the state’s Open Records Act. The newspapaper filed a request for documents detailing a $35,000 settlement with a former councilwoman two months ago.

The request was made Aug. 21 for all documents pertaining to the settlement agreement between former Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams and the city. City Clerk Mike Blandenburg responded Aug. 23, saying the city was in the process of compiling the records, which he anticipated being ready Aug. 30.

Clayton News Daily contacted the city Aug. 30 but got no response. Blandenburg sent an email to the newspaper Oct. 7, denying the request based on attorney-client privilege.

“After a review of the available documentation, we have determined that there are no documents responsive to your request which are not subject to the attorney-client privilege and thus exempt from disclosure (under Georgia law),” said Blandenburg.

David E. Hudson, an Augusta attorney considered 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.”

City Attorney Steve Fincher did not respond to a request for clarification by Clayton News Daily. However, he sent a message through Blandenburg.

“The City Attorneys asked me to let you know that your attorney can contact them, but that they believe the confidential settlement discussions with opposing counsel are part of the privilege,” said Blandenburg.

Again, Hudson said the city is wrong.

“There is a trial evidence privilege for settlement discussions that keep those discussions from being offered into evidence,” he said. “But I do not know of anything that would exempt settlement negotiations from disclosure under the Open Records Act if there are documents describing them in the possession of the city or someone acting on the city’s behalf.

“There is no basis for a city withholding records pertaining to the settlement of the dispute with Ms. Williams,” Hudson continued.

The city did not respond to Hudson’s assertion.

Hudson said the city is not in compliance with Georgia state law and waited too long to give a reason for the denial.

“If the city was going to impose and rely on an objection to producing the records you requested, it had to specify within three days the specific Code section, subsection and paragraph that it relied on to deny the request,” he said, “So first of all, without a timely objection being imposed, the city cannot now claim some basis for withholding the records you requested.”

Williams sued the city in federal court, alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Williams claimed she suffers from fibromyalgia and sued the city for not supplying her with an ergonomic chair to use during city council meetings.

Instead, the city built a ramp onto the dais so Williams could sit in her own chair.

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 do 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 in any open public meetings 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.