Saturday, January 12, 2008

Written 1/12/08

A Story, an Apology, an Editorial, a No Comment

The posting of Sunday (1/6/08) about the December 7 meeting of the Board of Commissioners in Madison has generated some informative reactions.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis posted an apology of sorts on the County web site on Tuesday (1/8/08) saying "an error was made" in giving "notice to the press of a facilitated retreat of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners scheduled for December 7, 2007, in Madison, Georgia."

According to the apology, in an "Open Letter to Oconee County Citizens," Davis and others ("we") discovered the error on Monday (1/7/08) as a result of the open records request I filed on 12/28/07. I picked up the requested materials on 1/3/08 and filed my report on my blog about 6 p.m. on Sunday (1/6).

I also sent that posting to the three local newspapers and WGAU radio. The Athens Banner-Herald contacted Chairman Davis on Tuesday (1/8) for a story it was preparing for Wednesday’s paper on the meeting.

Chairman Davis said in his apology letter that proper notice had been posted at the courthouse but that The Oconee Enterprise had been given less than 24-hour notice.

"I accept full responsibility for the error and apologize," Davis said.

In my open records request that forced the County to acknowledge the meeting, I had asked explicitly for all notices given, including any posted at the courthouse. All I received was a copy of a fax to the Enterprise.

In fact, the County legally could have given less than 24 hours notice for an emergency meeting.

Here, is what the law says:

"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. ‘Due notice’ shall be the posting of a written notice for at least 24 hours at the place of regular meetings and giving of written or oral notice at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting to the legal organ in which notices of sheriff's sales are published in the county where regular meetings are held or at the option of the agency to a newspaper having a general circulation in said county at least equal to that of the legal organ."

All Board of Commission meetings are required by the law to be open to the public. The "agency" is the Board of Commissioners. The "legal organ" is The Oconee Enterprise.

The law goes on to say:

"When special circumstances occur and are so declared by an agency, that agency may hold a meeting with less than 24 hours' notice upon giving such notice of the meeting and subjects expected to be considered at the meeting as is reasonable under the circumstances including notice to said county legal organ or a newspaper having a general circulation in the county at least equal to that of the legal organ, in which event the reason for holding the meeting within 24 hours and the nature of the notice shall be recorded in the minutes."

So the County did not violate the law in giving less than 24 hours notice. What the County did not do was explain in the minutes the reason for holding the meeting within 24 hours, and it did not record in those minutes the nature of the notice given. It violated the law in not doing that.

Davis’ apology, of course, focuses on a technicality–albeit the wrong one–rather than the real issue. The County planned a meeting at least three weeks in advance but didn’t tell people about it. It also held the meeting more than 20 miles from the Courthouse, making it unlikely citizens would have been able to attend even if they had known about it.

And that was the goal.

It is legal to give minimal notice. It is not what one does if one wants to involve the citizens in the discussion. Clearly Davis did not want citizens involved. For that, he has not apologized.

In the Banner-Herald story, Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke criticized Davis for not getting the notice right, since he called the meeting. They didn’t criticize him for setting up the retreat in a way to keep citizens from being involved.

Commissioner Don Norris said the importance of the whole issue was being exaggerated.

The Board of Commissioners could have met at the Library, at the Civic Center, at the Daniells House off Daniells Bridge Road, or at a number of other local venues. It paid $250 for the meeting room at the James Madison Inn & Conference Center, plus another $433 for food service and taxes.

The Banner-Herald story said that the Board of Commissioners traditionally meets about once a year for a retreat, though two retreats were held in 2007. No source is given for that statement.

The Banner-Herald on Thursday (1/10) followed its coverage of the day before with a stinging editorial. The paper challenged Davis’ apology and suggested he make a donation of $500 to a charity–the amount of the fine for violating the open meetings law–to show his sincerity.

Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson told me the newspaper also has informed the County it wants to be put on the list of media to be notified in the future for Board of Commissioner meetings. Georgia law allows the paper to make that request and requires the County to honor it.

The Oconee Leader did not contain anything about the controversy in its January 10 edition.

The Oconee Enterprise, however, ran three stories on the December 7 meeting on the front page of its edition of January 10.

One dealt with the discussion at the December 7 meeting of the request by the Chamber of Commerce that the Board of Commissioners approve beer and wine sales at restaurants.

Another dealt with the discussion at the December 7 meeting of a possible extension of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

The third dealt with the County’s apology for not giving proper notice of the December 7 meeting.

In that third story, the paper said that "county did send out notices of the meeting, but they went out less than 24 hours in advance of the gathering." The information is attributed to County Administrator Alan Theriault.

The County has not claimed it notified any media other than the Enterprise. No where in the paper did the Enterprise confirm–or deny–that it received the fax notifying it of the December 7 meeting.

What is clear is that the Enterprise never wrote about the December 7 meeting–until after I posted my blog.

I received an invoice on Tuesday (1/8) from the County, dated the day before--the day the County said it learned of its error as a result of my open records request.

It was for $37.24 to cover search and retrieval expenses the County said it incurred doing my open records search. According to the invoice, the County invested 2.5 hours @ $16.55 per hour. It reduced the bill by $4.14 to give me the first 15 minutes free.

I paid the bill on Friday, 1-11. I think it was money well spent.

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