Statesboro city council members are questioning the courtroom strategy of City Attorney Sam Brannen after a Bulloch County Superior Court judge found the city in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act. Judge John R. Turner posted the ruling Friday morning, after a hearing was held in his courtroom Tuesday.
In the ruling, Turner said the city conducted meetings on both April 1 and April 19 without posting proper public notice at City Hall or at the Gateway Pond House, where the meetings took place. He also ruled the city did not provide or post a proper agenda for either meeting, nor did it take or transcribe any minutes from the meetings.
“Professionally, the legal representation that we received in that court case was very unfitting the city,” said council member Travis Chance. “I definitely think we have some deficiencies, and we definitely need to get those remedied because council should have made the court aware that their interpretation was that no minutes were required and that we were not in violation of the (open meeting laws).”
Tuesday’s hearing came after six Statesboro businessmen – Earl Dabbs, Charles Olliff, Raybon Anderson, Jody Stubbs, Ray Hendley and Ellis Wood – filed a lawsuit against the city on June 29. Dan Snipes, of Franklin Taulbee, Rushing and Snipes, represented the plaintiffs while Brannen represented the mayor and city council.
Snipes called five witnesses to the stand: former police Chief Stan York, current City Clerk Sue Starling, City Manager Shane Haynes and plaintiffs Dabbs and Olliff. During the hearing, Brannen asked several clarifying questions of York, Starling and Haynes. He posed no questions to Dabbs or Olliff and presented no evidence or witnesses in the city’s defense.
Brannen would not say why none of the councilmen were called in their own defense.
“That’s part of the strategy in the trial of the case,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you why I did or did not do something in the trials of this case. I did what I did because I thought it was in the best interest of my client.”
Councilman Tommy Blitch said at no point during the budget or the hotel/motel tax work sessions did he think he was violating Georgia law.
“I don’t feel that I have (violated sunshine laws),” Blitch said. “Let me put it this way, if I had know (I was in violation of the law), I would have left.”
Chance said he made a mistake the morning of the April 1 budget retreat and showed up at city hall instead of the Gateway Pond House where the meeting was taking place. He said he realized his mistake when he looked at the agenda for the meeting, which was taped to the front window of city hall and indicated the meeting was at the pond house.
Starling, who gave testimony at Tuesday’s hearing 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.
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.
The Statesboro Herald printed a story on Sunday, April 18, the day before the hotel/motel tax work session attended by members of the Statesboro Arts Council (Averitt Center), the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and the Statesboro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which outlined the agenda for the meeting.
Brannen said he did not present as evidence the newspaper article because, “I didn’t think it was necessary to bring up that particular point.”
Despite evidence showing there was an agenda provided to the public for the April 19 Gateway Pond House meeting, Brannen did not offer the evidence in defense of the mayor and city council.
“The judge, I believe, should have taken into consideration that the city council was taking legal advice from our city attorney and our city attorney advised us we were in no form of violation,” Chance said. “Coming into an elected position, you entrust your decision making ability is heavily on the city attorney. And if the city attorney is telling you that you were in compliance, how can we as councilmen dispute that? That’s the way (the city) did it for 30 years and there’s never been a court case filed. All I’ve ever been told since I’ve been on council was if we were not going to take action then no minutes are required.”
On the city council’s agenda for Wednesday’s regularly scheduled meeting, the council plans to go into executive session to discuss legal matters. However, council members would not elaborate.
As part of his ruling, Judge Turner ordered the city to publish the full agenda for the April 1 and April 19 meetings and to hold the meetings again “where the subject matter for the April 1, and April 19, 2010 meetings is discussed in an open and public forum.” Also, Turner ordered the city to pay the plaintiffs and plaintiff’s counsel $4,250 in “reasonable” attorney’s fees and expenses.
Brannen said the city had not discussed if it would appeal the judge’s ruling.