There’s nothing nuanced about Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens’ understanding of the state’s “open meetings” law - and that’s a good thing.
Outside of some exceptions - most notably regarding acquisition of real estate, discussion of some legal matters and the hiring and firing of employees - state law is abundantly and unequivocally clear as to when local governmental entities must open their proceeding to the public.
Here’s the applicable paragraph of state law, in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated at 50-14-1(2): “’Meeting’ means the gathering of a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency or of any committee of its members created by such governing body, whether standing or special, pursuant to schedule, call, or notice of or from such governing body or committee or an authorized member, at a designated time and place at which any public matter, official business, or policy of the agency is to be discussed or presented or at which official action is to be taken or, in the case of a committee, recommendations on any public matter, official business, or policy to the governing body are to be formulated, presented, or discussed.”
Put simply, state law requires that any meeting at which a quorum – a sufficient number of members to conduct binding votes – is assembled be open to the public. Olens’ interpretation of the law is refreshingly strict and uncomplicated. According to a Georgia Public Broadcasting report on Olens’ meeting last week with the Savannah City Council – which has attracted his office’s attention in regarding some apparent violations of the open meetings law – “Olens says, any time a quorum of elected officials discusses public business, it’s a meeting ... . He says it’s a meeting even if such a discussion is done by email - including on personal (as opposed to government-owned) computers - and even if it’s done casually over lunch.”
Olens’ tough interpretation of the open meetings law should put local governments around the state on notice that a slipshod approach to “informal” discussions among city council members, county commissioners and others covered by the law could be enough to land them in some serious trouble.
The public should welcome the burden that Olens has placed on the backs of local elected officials with his plain-language reading of the open meetings statute. Since the advent of email and other digital communications tools that allow a number of people to communicate instantaneously, it’s been an open secret that some local officials use those tools to circumvent open meetings laws, communicating among themselves in what can become – de facto, if not necessarily clearly de jure - meetings that should be open to the public. That has presented some difficulty for citizens and the media in bringing to light any attempts to circumvent the law.
Here, though, is the standard that public officials now can expect Olens’ office to apply, as explained to Savannah City Council members by Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general: “Save your thoughts for your council meetings so that the public and the press can see what you’re doing,” Ritter said. “It is in your interest to conduct business in as open and transparent a way as you can. Very little needs to be hidden. Almost everything can be done in the public eye.”
Local officials should consider themselves warned, and any number of local government entities should expect to find themselves hauled into court in coming days as citizens and the media, emboldened by the attorney general’s no-nonsense stand, decide to hold them accountable for any lackadaisical attention to the state’s open meetings laws.