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3-24-05 Open Meetings and County Commissioners

………you cannot hide governmental decisions and the expenditure of public funds forever.  It will eventually catch up.  Citizens can and do demand changes…..It is just best to do the public’s business in public in the first place!

AVOC

 

March 19, 2005

 

Open Meetings and County Commissioners

 

By Wendell Dawson, Editor, AVOC, Inc.

 

Effingham is a growing suburban county near Savannah.  Some of their officials once came to Oconee County to discuss the beginning of a County Water system.  (They have artesian wells that produce several times as many gpm as wells in this area.) Effingham’s 2000 Census Figures are not unlike NEGA Counties:

 

                                       1990           2000           Difference   %

 

Effingham

25,687

37,535

11,848

46%

 

Jackson                         30,005

41,589

11,584

39%

 

Madison                             20,119

25,730

5,611

28%

 

Barrow                            29,721

46,144

16,423

55%

 

Oconee                            17,618

26,225

8,607

49%

 

 

Allegedly, commissioners in Effingham County have  added items at the beginning, midway through and near the end of meetings after most public spectators had left.  (In Oconee, the tactic is to put many substantive matters on two agendas but bury them under Consent Items of the “First Tuesday” or regular meeting.)

 

Such tactics will work for a while.  However, you cannot hide governmental decisions and the expenditure of public funds forever.  It will eventually catch up.  Citizens can and do demand changes.

 

It is just best to do the public’s business in public in the first place!


The Savannah Morning News

        

 

March 15, 2005

 

Officials say Effingham Commission agendas are questionable

Frequent agenda additions could be violations of state Sunshine Law.

Don Lowery

SPRINGFIELD - The Sunshine Law was rather dim at Effingham County Commission meetings last year as commissioners juggled agenda items - possibly illegally - on a variety of controversial subjects.

Commissioners acted questionably on about two dozen matters ranging from accepting a $ million-plus sewer project to paying officials' legal expenses, according to a Georgia Press Association lawyer and state Attorney General spokesperson.

A review of the 2004 commission minutes show items were added at the beginning, midway through and near the end of meetings after most public spectators had left. And at the Feb. 5, 2004 meeting, the agenda was changed three times to accommodate add-ons.

"They have a sneaky way of doing things," said Joe Maner of Marlow, who frequently attends commission meetings or reviews the minutes.

It's also illegal and could result in some serious problems for commissioners, said Russ Willard of the Attorney General's office.

"A city or county government that habitually adds onto the agenda risks having a court come in and invalidate the items involved," said Willard.

He added that patterns of adding to the agenda tend to "lean toward an abuse of the process" and could result in court action, including voiding the add-ons.

County officials contend their attorney reviews all items before each is added to the agenda.

"Such items are those which have to be discussed at the current meeting and cannot wait until the following meeting," said Karen Robertson, spokesperson for the commission. "The county is open about its items for discussion and is committed to working for the greater good of Effingham County."

Commissioner Jeff Utley said agenda additions were an accepted practice when he joined the board two years ago.

Utley was unfamiliar with the restrictions of add-on items, but has protested those involving controversial issues.

"Most of them are minor things that the public does not care about," said Utley. "But when it is an issue that people are concerned about, it should be on the agenda before the meeting starts."

Georgia Press Association lawyer David Hudson said state law on adding items to the agenda once a meeting starts is pretty simple. It boils down to:

- Was it necessary because it could not be scheduled for the next meeting? and;

- Was the commission remiss in not including it on the agenda?

"If the answer is 'yes' to either of these questions, then I think there would be grounds to challenge the legality of what the commission enacted for an item that was not on the agenda," said Hudson.

Only time-sensitive matters arising after the agenda is posted should be considered for an addendum, officials said.

Georgia Code 50-14-1(e), which sets the guidelines for amending agendas and judicial precedent, includes a 2003 Clayton County Superior Court case.

In that case, a judge ruled Forest Park officials added an agenda item that was not necessary.

In ruling against the city, the judge said the public officials' action were in violation of the Open Meetings Law and invalidated the actions approved, Hudson said.

City officials were also ordered to pay $6,000 in attorney fees for the resident who brought the legal action.

Add-ons after a meeting starts defeats the purpose of having an agenda, added Willard.

"Georgia law requires that agendas be posted and readily available before the meetings so that the public has time to prepare their thoughts and give their input," said Willard.

Robertson said commissioners schedule a day-time meeting and an evening session each month to encourage public attendance.

"The county conducts business on these items in the open and information is available to the public," Robertson said.

Utley said he hopes his fellow commissioners will reduce add-ons in the future, limiting them to time-sensitive matters only.

State officials said that seems to be the best route for commissioners if they want to avoid legal challenges and possible negative consequences.

"The courts across Georgia have been vigorously enforcing abuses regarding open meetings and we don't see that changing anytime soon," said Willard.


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