A group of local businessmen filed a lawsuit earlier this week against the members of the Statesboro City Council, alleging they violated Georgia Open Meeting laws when they held meetings to discuss the 2011 city budget and the restructuring of the police and fire departments.
Six men — Earl Dabbs, Charles Olliff, Raybon Anderson, Jody Stubbs, Ray Hendley and Ellis Wood — were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city, which was filed in the Superior Court of Bulloch County late Tuesday afternoon. In a press release, the group argues that four meetings held March 31, April 1, 16 and 19 of this year at the Gateway Pond House violated Georgia law because the meetings were not properly advertised and minutes of the meetings were not made available to the public.
Dabbs, the unofficial spokesman for the group, said they are not looking to necessarily overturn decisions made by the council, but simply want to know what took place at those four meetings. He said he had looked though the minutes that are posted on the city’s website and was unable to find any mention of budget discussion or restructuring of the public safety department.
“There had to be some discussion at those meetings,” Dabbs said. “We’re unable to find any agendas or notices of the meeting, so we’re really in the dark. I have great concern when we are conducting governmental business outside of open meetings.”
Dabbs said the group is not looking to overturn the city decision to restructure public safety nor are they seeking the reinstatement of former Statesboro Police Chief Stan York or Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield. York’s and Merrifield’s positions were eliminated as part of the public safety restructuring in May.
“No, that’s not the point. There had to be discussions about the budget. There are items in that budget that have been increased and I don’t recall seeing in any of the minutes where there was any open discussion on that,” Dabbs said. “We really don’t know what happened.”
Mayor Joe Brannen said Wednesday afternoon that he had not heard about the lawsuit nor has he been served with any official notification to appear in court. Councilman Will Britt said he had heard rumors of a lawsuit but said he has not seen the written complaint filed with the court. Britt said he had no comment about the suit, but said citizens should approach the council if they have questions.
“If anyone has a concern about our policies, procedures or our decisions, I would encourage them to contact (City Manager) Shane (Haynes). I would encourage them to see Shane. I would encourage them to contact city council and to see city council,” Britt said. “After doing that, maybe some of the decisions could be explained to them. I think a lot of this is because the lines of communication are not being used.”
According to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, “whenever any meeting required to be open to the public is to be held at a time or place other than at the time and place prescribed for regular meetings, the agency shall give due notice thereof.” The code goes on to say “due notice” means posting a written notice of the meeting at the place of regular meeting 24 hours in advance of the called meeting and written or oral notice should be given to the county’s legal organ at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.
“There’s no question in my mind that (the council) has violated the Sunshine Law. And there are provisions in the sunshine law for penalties,” Dabbs said. “If they have violated those laws, we’d expect those penalties to be exerted and that they start holding their meetings in the open.”
Georgia law states, “Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00.”
Councilman Travis Chance said he has only been to the pond house twice this year – for the April 1 budget retreat and for the April 19 meeting where the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Development Authority and the Statesboro Arts Council made presentations to the council about how they spend their apportionment of the city’s hotel/motel tax. He said he does not believe the council broke any rules.
“I’m not aware of any meeting that would violate sunshine laws or the open records act,” Chance said. “I think it’s unfortunate that these gentlemen didn’t fact check before filing this lawsuit.”
Dabbs said he knows city meetings took place at the pond house because the Bulloch County Development Authority keeps a log of all the groups that reserve and use the pond house.
“All we’re asking is that (the council) follow the law,” Dabbs said. “The whole object is to have open government where the citizens have input and their interests are best served.”