The state Attorney General’s Office is looking into a possible open meetings law violation by four Fulton County commissioners, who sat together at a town hall meeting held last month to oppose GOP efforts to reshape the county government.
Reacting to an article about the matter in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, an attorney for the state asked interim Fulton County Attorney Larry Ramsey for an explanation. Under Georgia law, Attorney General Sam Olens enforces sunshine law compliance and can prosecute alleged infractions.
Ramsey responded that there is no need for action, describing the meeting of a quorum of commissioners as “accidental.”
He also pointed out that it happened in plain sight of the public. The four met at an event that had been publicized through news releases, with the county clerk taking minutes and Fulton Government Television filming.
Commissioner Emma Darnell hosted the Feb. 17 forum at a west Atlanta senior center to raise awareness about several bills introduced by north Fulton’s state lawmakers, which she and other Democrats say will financially vanquish the county and hurt poor and elderly residents who rely on its services. Commissioners Bill Edwards, Joan Garner and Robb Pitts also showed up, and all four officials sat at the front of the room, hearing a succession of residents rail against the GOP proposals.
“My investigation uncovered no evidence that there was any advance intent on the part of the Commissioners to hold a ‘meeting,’ ” Ramsey told Assistant Attorney General Kelly Campanella in a letter obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News. “Rather, the three other Commissioners individually chose to attend based on their interest in the subject matter.”
Pitts said he thought that, so long as they didn’t plan the discussion in advance, a quorum of commissioners can talk about public business if they show up for the same event. He said it’s happened multiple times during his political career, both on the Atlanta City Council and the Fulton County Commission. He recalls it occurring at funerals and company functions.
Pitts said he will be more careful in the future. Oftentimes, conversations drift to upcoming votes.
“It just happens,” he said, “but there’s no intent.”
Several Democratic state lawmakers and city officials also attended the town hall meeting. Interim County Manager David Ware, who served as county attorney for four years, sat with the commissioners but did nothing to avert a violation.
Ware did not respond to a question about the issue from the AJC. Edwards said he does not blame Ware for not alerting them.
“Nobody ever dreamed of the fact that this was a doggone meeting,” Edwards said.
Earlier this month, Republican County Commissioner Liz Hausmann asked the four to report their violation to the state to avoid action against the board, but they refused. In the ensuing debate, Edwards referred to her district as “podunk north Fulton,” and Hausmann has since asked him by letter to “stop the acrimonious rhetoric.”
Edwards said her letter is in the garbage.
Spokeswoman Lauren Kane said the Attorney General’s Office is reviewing Ramsey’s letter and will decide what steps to take. First-time open meetings violations are punishable by fines of up to $1,000.