Six local businessmen suing the Statesboro mayor and city council for alleged violations of Georgia’s Open Meetings laws got their day in court Tuesday morning, but they left without an answer as the judge said he wouldn’t release his decision until later in the week.
The six men — Earl Dabbs, Charles Olliff, Raybon Anderson, Jody Stubbs, Ray Hendley and Ellis Wood – filed a lawsuit against the city on June 29, arguing that four city meetings held March 31, April 1, 16 and 19 at the Gateway Pond House violated Georgia law because they were not properly advertised and minutes of the meetings have not been made available to the public. Dan Snipes, of Franklin Taulbee, Rushing and Snipes, represented the plaintiffs while City Attorney Sam Brannen represented the mayor and city council. Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner presided over the hearing.
Snipes started the hearing by calling former Statesboro Police Chief Stan York, who testified that he attended the city’s budget hearing on April 1 in order to give a presentation to the council about potential capital improvement projects for police department for FY 2011. York said this is part of the duties of a department head. He also said he had no knowledge of any executive session being held after the budget meeting.
Called next to the stand was City Clerk Sue Starling, who gave testimony about posting notices for city meetings as required by state law. Though Starling was unclear about the specific dates and times that she posted the notices for the meetings in question, she said it was “habit” for the clerk’s office to post notices on the front door of city hall at least 24 hours before any scheduled or called meeting.
Starling also admitted that no minutes were taken at the budget retreat on April 1 and the April 19 meeting regarding the hotel/motel tax. She testified that in the past it had been the practice of the clerk’s office not to take minutes from work sessions.
City Manager Shane Haynes was also called to the stand where he confirmed that the meetings in question took place and that he was confident that notice was properly given. While he did admit that he did not actually witness the posting of the city’s agenda on the front window of city hall, he said that it was the city’s standing policy to do so.
Haynes also said that he, the mayor and council discussed the city’s budget at both the April 1 and 19 meetings after listening to presentations, but said that no decisions were made during those times. He said, historically speaking, the city has not prepared minutes for city work sessions and agreed that the city may have violated open meeting laws depending upon the interpretation of the law.
In an email sent to the Herald, David E. Hudson, Georgia Press Association general counsel, said his opinion was that if no action was taken at a meeting, then no minutes need to be taken.
Snipes then called Dabbs and Olliff to the stand, where both men said they were looking for information about the council’s decision to restructure the fire and police departments. They decided to file the suit when they were unable to find any minutes of the budget retreat and other budget-related work sessions.
“We’re unable to find any agendas or notices of the meeting, so we’re really in the dark,” Dabbs said after the lawsuit became public knowledge. “I have great concern when we are conducting governmental business outside of open meetings.”
Attorney Brannen did not question either Dabbs or Olliff on the stand and did not call any witnesses in the city’s defense.
Though Judge Turner won’t rule for another day or two, the two sides have differing opinions about how the hearing went. Dabbs, the unofficial spokesman for the six men, said he thought the hearing went well for the plaintiffs.
“It was about meetings not being open and not being properly recorded. I think it was brought out in the meeting,” Dabbs said. “Dan Snipes articulated it as well as he could, based on the information we had.”
City Councilman Travis Chance, one of the named defendants in the suit, had a different take on the proceedings.
““I’m very disappointed at how the entire proceeding went because in my estimation, if someone was genuinely concerned that there were no minutes presented, then I would have strongly encouraged that person to bring that to our attention and let us get a legal interpretation,” Chance said. “And going forward we could have remedied this without costing the taxpayer’s money and without causing an entire fiasco of proceedings that we participated in today.”
Mayor Joe Brannen said he cannot recall a previous work session where minutes were taken by the city clerk, and said he feels the public was adequately notified of all meetings. Regardless, he said the council is working to correct the perception that officials are meeting secretly and will take minutes at all council meetings and work sessions regardless if it is specifically required by law.
“I’m comfortable. I feel like we’ve notified the public,” Brannen said.
“As far as the budget retreat, since I’ve been on council – except for one year we didn’t hold it at the pond house – we have not taken minutes we have not been in a work session where we’ve taken minutes. We’re talking 10 years,” Brannen said. “We’re going to go forward so we don’t run into these things.”
Chance echoed the mayor’s sentiments.
“From my perspective, we as a council were told by our legal team that the only meetings that minutes were required at were those where council was in a called or special called meeting where action was going to be taken,” Chance said. “In my two-and-a-half years, I’ve never been told or disputed that minutes were required at budget hearings or special work sessions. Never.”
“The only argument I heard in the courtroom was not that we had illegal meetings but that there were no minutes for the meetings. If that’s the case, the gentlemen could claim some vindication by saying there were no minutes kept because they’d be right – there were no minutes kept.”
Dabbs said he and the other plaintiffs decided to sue the city after they were unable to find city documents or minutes related to the restructuring of the police and fire departments. He said the decision, and the reasons behind the decision, need to be open “where people can have some open discussion about it.”
“The thing that amazes me, once I received a copy of the budget and the article that was published in the paper about the big savings – some $425,000. When you look at the personnel in both the fire department and the police department – and this is a matter of written record in the budget - they only cut their staff in the police department by one-half a person. They only cut the staff at the fire department by one-half a person. That’s in the budget, in writing, so where’s the big savings?
“That’s a question someone needs to answer.”
Brannen thinks the entire lawsuit could have been handled in a different way.
“I’m just disappointed that this all came about and we had not done anything to warrant it,” Brannen said. “As far as the violation of the open meetings act – a whole lot about nothing.”