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June 10, 2014

Council calls for audio recording inquiry

MILLEDGEVILLE — Audio recordings released last week of a March Milledgeville City Council discussion disclosed that $5.1 million in city funds were withdrawn from Century Bank & Trust. The decision to move the funds followed a discussion among Council members regarding whether the transfer would be seen as retaliation after the bank president Chat Daniel wrote a letter to the editor sharply criticizing the council.  

Councilors voted unanimously Tuesday to start an investigation into who released the audio to The Union-Recorder, which incorporated it into a June 7-9 Weekend Edition article. Councilor Denese Shinholster made the motion to open the investigation.

“Many people have said many things, and I just want to be clear as to where the recording came from,” she said. “You can assume, and it would be a false accusation.”

Shinholster looked at the audio as a stab in the back.

“I'm not going to say who it is [that took the audio]. I'll wait until the investigation is complete,” Shinholster said. “Once we know, then I'll deal with it.”

City Attorney Jimmy Jordan said the move directs City Manager Barry Jarrett to orchestrate the investigation.

Jordan recommended using an independent investigator instead of his office since he was involved in the recorded conversation.

Councilor Boo Mullins said Tuesday he wants to know if more audio exists, possibly taken during legally closed, executive sessions.

“Obviously, we've been taped before, so how many are out there,” Mullins said.

Jordan said he didn't think Council would find an answer.

He said attorney-client privilege has a gray area.

“The mayor and alderman each hold that attorney-client privilege. Under Georgia law, any particular client can wave that privilege,” Jordan said. “I'm not going to tell you that any one of you could not release information gathered in a closed session.”

The meeting heard on the tape occurred at city hall March 3 following a two-hour closed executive session to discuss legal matters. A quorum of city councilors attended though no members of the public or press were present.

Councilor Collinda J. Lee confirmed the taped conversations happened outside of the aforementioned closed session.

“A council member asked a question about retaliation, and that's how it all got started,” Lee said Tuesday.

According to Georgia's Sunshine Law Appendix 2 on open and public meetings, a “meeting” is defined as “the gathering of a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency at which any official business, policy, or public matter of the agency is formulated, presented, discussed or voted upon.”

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 and public meetings law.

Lee agreed to an investigation and said the matter is about loyalty.

“There are consequences behind everything that we do,” she added. “I'm sorry that it's gotten to this point.”

Councilor Steve Chambers said he heard the recording attached to The Union-Recorder story Saturday morning.

He said he understood that as long as a person is party to the conversation taking place it doesn't matter how many people are unaware they are being taped.

Jordan said no legal action could come forward if the individual that released the audio attended that particular meeting.

Sunshine Law Appendix 2 on Superior Court Jurisdiction states, “any agency or person who provides access to information in good faith reliance on the requirements of this chapter shall not be liable in any action on account of having provided access to such information.”

Councilor Walter Reynolds said the city officials were elected to serve the public trust.

“The definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching,” Reynolds said.

Shinholster disagreed.

“No, the definition of integrity is doing the right thing when people are watching,” she said at the close of Tuesday’s regular meeting.

After adjournment, Shinholster addressed her request for an investigation.

She said doesn't want to “walk on egg shells” and demands an explanation from someone.

The councilwoman also said that there are always people standing and talking after meetings. She said she didn't feel that the city violated any laws discussing moving funds.

“I know what I said, and I still stand by it,” Shinholster said. “Retaliation kept being baited into the conversation. Somebody asked a question, and we gave our opinion. I think that it was done on purpose.”

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