There will be changes made to the way that the City of Savannah handles public meetings and public records or there will be legal consequences.
That was the message delivered by Attorney General Sam Olens and Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter during last week’s council workshop.
“This will change the way we’ve operated,” said Mayor Johnson, who thanked Olens for his visit and the legal clarifications.
The meeting between council and the Attorney General arose following a series of complaints to the AG’s office regarding the city manager hiring process, and then another round regarding the city’s payment of a flood damage settlement to Alderwoman Mary Osborne.
Both incidents were handled almost exclusively in executive sessions, shielded from the public and the media.
“What the public is telling me is that your meetings are closed and they don’t know how you’re coming to decisions,” said Ritter during his remarks.
“Perception is reality,” Olens stressed to the council, explaining that the AG’s office receives several hundred complaints per year.
Some are valid and others are clearly individuals with personal or political agendas, but he felt that several complaints made by local citizens merited further investigation.
The AG’s office concluded that the City Manager hiring process, during which time council members broke up into groups of two or three to interview candidates in order to avoid having a quorum present, was in violation but didn’t merit prosecution.
Their assessment of the settlement to Alderwoman Osborne is ongoing, but as he was concluding the talk, Olens commented, “If the claim is untimely, you have to explain to me why it’s executive,” while rattling off a list of practices where the council should err on the side of caution.
While both Ritter and Olens were there to specifically outline Open Meeting and Open Records law, as the workshop continued, it became clear that there were a considerable number of common practices amongst council members that were actually in violation of the law, and which council pledged to correct moving forward.
For example, council members regularly gather for lunch during the time between the regularly scheduled morning workshop and afternoon council meeting every other Thursday.
Olens explained that because that meal is attended by a quorum of council members but is not on any published agenda, nor advertised to the public, it is against the law if any city business is discussed.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” said the Mayor, “[But] most of what we do has been going on for 20 years or more...We haven’t intentionally violated this law.”
Another issue Olens found was that although the agenda for the city council meeting is published online, there is no agenda available for the council workshops. That agenda is distributed to the media in advance, but is not accessible to the general public. Every meeting of council requires a minimum of 24 hours notice to the public.
Members of council were able to ask questions throughout, and touched upon issues that included whether or not personal emails were also public record, whether editing video re–broadcasts of council meetings was against the law, and whether the broadcast of meetings on television met any legal requirements for open meetings.
The AGs stressed that Open Meeting laws couldn’t be circumvented by technology, explaining that if one council person sent the rest of council an email discussing an issue that it would be a violation of the law.
Olens also stressed that those emails needed to be kept for public record, according to state law.
“Anytime a quorum meets to discuss public issues, it’s a meeting under the law,” said Ritter.
“We don’t want you to discuss business via email. We don’t want you having private discussions. You can’t shield those. That’s life in the public sector.”