Did the Trenton City Commission Violate Open Meetings Act? Probably. So What?

Left to right, Mayor Alex Case with city commissioners Sandra Gray, Terry Powell, Monda Wooten and Jerry Henegar in a file shot.

With qualifying now over for the two Trenton City Commission offices to be elected in November, and still no official announcement to the voters as to what happened to the third that in the normal course of events would now be up for reelection, now seems an opportune time to share what The Planet has learned about open-government laws.

In Georgia, city and county governments are required to conform to OMA, the Open Meetings Act of 2012, which in general requires them to conduct official business where the public and the press can see them doing it. Has the Trenton City Commission violated OMA? Almost certainly. Is there anything to be done about it? Probably not.

Background: In November 2016, the Trenton City Commission put on its consent agenda a resolution asking State Sen. Jeff Mullis to sponsor local legislation amending the city charter to make the city clerk job an appointed rather than elected position. The mayor and city commissioners, all part-time officials, wished to change the charter to bring the city clerk, the one full-time elected job, under their supervision. Currently, the clerk was answerable only to the voters.

Sen. Mullis and Rep. John Deffenbaugh, Trenton’s voices in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, had to sign off on the change. Sen. Mullis told The Planet they had done so with the understanding it was the unanimous will of the commission. The legislation was duly passed in May of this year.

The business of placing the resolution on the November consent agenda was the first mention of this matter at any public meeting in 2016. When the commissioners were questioned as to when they had discussed it they were vague—oh, workshops, they said, we’ve been talking about it for years.

That November mention was also the last time the matter came up during the public part of any Trenton City Commission. (The commission is much given to holding lengthy "executive," or closed-door sessions.) Even after the legislation was passed in May, and even after the city charter was presumably amended by the city commission’s out-of-town "city attorney," no announcement has ever been made at an open meeting. The commission simply disappeared the city clerk job from the ballot.

Asked about the legality of the commission’s move, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo of the Georgia Department of Law requested a copy of the agenda for the November 2016 meeting. She subsequently wrote in an email to The Planet: "It looks like most of the items in the minutes were added to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting; I don't see anything on the agenda that seems to match up with the resolution about amending the city charter."

Which wasn't that big a deal, she added; governments are allowed to add to a meeting agenda items that need to be dealt with right then. "But it is concerning that almost all the substantive business at this meeting was added at the last minute, and that a lot of the things on the agenda don't seem to have come up at all during the meeting," she wrote.

Anyway, concluded Ms. Colangelo: "...in this case, even IF the city council's vote last November was in violation of the OMA, that won't undo any legislation that the general assembly has already passed."

Agenda, schmagenda, objected The Planet; what was in question here was not any of this second-the-motion procedural stuff but the basic reality that before anything got put on any agenda there had to have been some discussion as to why it needed to be there. Weren't such discussions supposed to be in the earshot of the press and the public?

The attorney replied: "It would be a violation of the OMA for a quorum of the city council to meet in private to discuss the issue. But if one member had the idea, and then discussed it one-on-one with a 2nd council member; and the next day discussed it one-on-one with a 3rd city council member; and then #2 and #3 discussed it with each other; and so on -- then they would not ever have met in a quorum and so would not have violated the Act. We usually describe that as violating the "spirit of the Act"; maybe it doesn't actually break the law, but it's the opposite of the kind of openness that we expect from our elected officials."

But if officials can beat the rap by saying that's what happened, asked The Planet, does anyone ever get called out for violating the rules?

Well, said Ms. Colangelo: "I frequently write to cities or counties to let them know they're getting close to the line, and offer to come out and do a training session on how to comply with the law. Once citizens know that they can contact our office about problems, local governments are usually more enthusiastic about following the law. And if problems continue even after I've done a training session, then it may be easier to prove that things are being done intentionally."

Which The Planet takes for a no. In neighboring Chattanooga, activist Helen Burns Sharp successfully sued her city government for violating open meetings rules in 2014, in connection with the Black Creek development; but she did so at a level of trouble and expense to which most citizens would be unwilling or unable to rise.

But the citizens of Trenton do have one easy and free method of expressing their opinion in this matter: the vote. Two of the city commissioners are up for reelection on the November ballot, and both are challenged.

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