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July 1, 2014

Attorney General investigating City Council

Council possibly violated Open Meetings Act

MILLEDGEVILLE — The Georgia Attorney General’s Office is looking into a potential Open Meetings Act violation by Milledgeville City Council.

A letter from the Georgia Attorney General's Office was recently sent notifying city officials of the investigation. Stefan Ritter, senior assistant Attorney General, penned the June 20 letter to City Attorney Jimmy Jordan.

Ritter said based on several articles published in The Union-Recorder and complaints received by the Georgia Department of Law Office, the state is looking into “a violation and potentially numerous recurrent violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act [that] may have occurred by the gatherings of councilpersons.”

Comments made during an audio taped March 3 City Council discussion about the ramifications of withdrawing city funds from a bank whose president had criticized the council have raised questions regarding possible violations.

Councilor Walter Reynolds recorded the discussion without the knowledge of the other Council members, the city manager and others present because he said the citizens of Milledgeville had a right to know about the conversation that took place with no members of the public or press present.

The possible violation actually occurred after a two-hour closed meeting of the council. Councilors convened an open meeting on March 3, then promptly went into closed session, and re-emerged two hours later to adjourn the open meeting.

The discussion at issue occurred afterward, and included the circulation of a document authorizing City Manager Barry Jarrett to move the city funds out of Century Bank. Jordan advised the council the document was unnecessary because Jarrett did not need approval to withdraw or deposit city funds.

The document was later shredded. The $5.1 million was withdrawn from Century Bank a little more than a week later and invested with Wells Fargo Advisors.

According to Georgia's Sunshine Law, a public meeting is required when a quorum of a government body or agency is present and “at which any official business, policy or public matter of the agency is formulated, presented, discussed or voted upon.”

Ritter said if the transcript of the audio that ran in The Union-Recorder was accurate it “appears evident” that city business was being discussed outside of the public's presence by a quorum of City Councilors constituting “a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

Director of Communications for the Attorney General's Office Lauren Kane said the investigative action falls under the Open Government Mediation Program that helps Georgia's citizens with questions or concerns about local government's decisions to close meetings to the public or governmental responses to Open Records requests.

If local governments fail to fulfill their obligations under the Open Meetings and Open Records acts, the office can initiate legal action.

“Our office, of course, is not aware of all the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and I am not assuming the city violated the law,” Ritter said in the letter.

Jordan suggested that the City of Milledgeville retain separate legal counsel for this request for information and clarification considering that he was present during the aforementioned inquiry and could be called as a witness.

Childs & Noland Trial Lawyers will represent the city. Jordan said the city is preparing a response to the Attorney General's request.

“I anticipate legal counsel will be in communication with the Attorney General to explain (the city's) involvement and how they proceed from there will be up to them,” Jordan said.

The city's legal counsel must provide a response within 14 days explaining the city's position on the alleged meetings.

If an Open Meetings violation is deemed egregious enough city officials could be asked to sign a consent order agreeing that wrongdoing occurred or face legal action if they refuse.

“It's a process where we try to uncover exactly what happened and reach a resolution,” Kane said. “Once we get their response, we'll figure out if we need more information. We take any violation of the Sunshine Laws very seriously.”

Ritter requested all copies of notices, agendas, non-executive session affidavits and minutes for all “meetings” within the meaning of the Open Meetings Act held by a quorum or more of the City Council since March 1.

The office also wants an electronic copy of all email by Councilor Denese Shinholster to any other council members since Jan. 1 and a copy of the alleged document asking the city manager to withdraw the money market funds from Century Bank.

Jordan said the city nearly has all the requested documentation gathered.

The Attorney General has the authority to bring either civil or criminal enforcement actions, as may be appropriate to enforce compliance with the state's open meetings law.

Willful violation of the open meeting law is considered a criminal misdemeanor. A civil fine of $1,000 plus plaintiff attorney fees can be imposed for negligently violating the law. Attorney fees can also be added under certain circumstances.

 

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