Rather than attend a Superior Court hearing in which the suing party would seek more than $18,000 in compensated legal fees, officials representing the City of Statesboro decided to pay an out-of-court settlement for less than half the amount, according to City Manager Frank Parker.
In lieu of a court date, City officials agreed to provide $8,500 to a private citizen-group — Earl Dabbs, Charles Oliff, Raybon Anderson, Jody Stubbs, Ray Hendley and Ellis Wood — as compensation for legal costs associated with an unsuccessful appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court earlier this year.
Prior to the Oct. 19 settlement, the plaintiffs were requesting approximately $18,600 for fees incurred through the appeal process, Parker said.
“We agreed that in the best interest of the city and in the best interest of those six citizens that we would just resolve the matter,” Parker said. “My job was to serve the best interest of the citizens of Statesboro and I think we came out much better financially by settling the case.”
Parker said the decision to reach a settlement was made for a pair of reasons.
“One, since we initiated the [Supreme Court] appeal, I felt there was not a very good chance of getting a good deal in the court,” he said. “Two, through discussion with our attorney (Patrick O’Connor was hired for the case), we decided that if we went to court and won, it would cost us as least $8,500 in attorney fees. If the judge determined we had to pay compensation, costs would have gone up to $20,000, $25,000 or even $35,000.”
“We were willing to pay a little just to avoid court,” he said. “We closed the case and will move on.”
The Supreme Court appeal was asked for by city officials when the suing party prevailed in a September 2010 case charging Statesboro with violating Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
Plaintiffs argued that two city meetings held at the Gateway Pond House (April 1 and 19), instead of City Hall’s council chambers, violated Georgia law because they were not properly advertised and minutes of the meetings were not made available to the public.
City representatives asserted that notice was posted on the front door of City Hall, but not at the Pond House, which is on private property and inaccessible to the public during most days. The city conceded that no minutes were recorded at the meetings — according to then City Manager Shane Haynes, the city historically did not prepare minutes for meetings in which no action was taken.
The original Bulloch County court ruling by Judge John R. Turner required the City of Statesboro pay the legal costs of the plaintiffs for the Superior Court hearing ($4,250) and re-hold the two meetings deemed in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The Supreme Court upheld the ruling in September, and the city has since met both conditions of the ruling.
“I still am not quite sure what those six men accomplished,” said Councilman Will Britt. “I am not very pleased at all about how it all transpired. I wish [the plaintiffs] would have just come forward and said, 'Hey, I think you guys met in secret. Would you just have the meeting again in public?’ I think all of us would have said sure.”
“The idea of this settlement was getting [the case] over as soon as possible,” he said. “There was no reason to drag it out.”
“It was going to cost us more to just to go to court and see if we can win, than to go ahead and settle,” said Councilman Travis Chance. “What we chose to do was: make a decision based on economics, and do what was in the city’s best interest.”
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.