Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Attorney General Approves Closed Meetings

Sides with County's Secret Bidding Procedures

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter informed me in a letter dated February 29, 2008, that, in his view, Oconee County did not violate Georgia Open Meetings Act when it refused to allow me to attend the meetings of the Selection Committee reviewing the bids for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

I received the letter today, but Daniel Haygood, Oconee County Attorney, received a copy of the letter yesterday and announced the conclusion of Ritter at the Board of Commissioners meeting last night. He also sent copies to the Athens Banner-Herald, and a story appeared in the paper today on the decision.

Ritter wrote that "the meetings of the Selection Committee are not meetings as defined by the Act or at least I have insufficient evidence to believe that they are open meetings."

Ritter advised me to "consult with counsel of your own choosing" if I wished to pursue the matter. He said the file, created in response to my complaint to him of January 17, 2008, is now closed.

Ritter called me on the day he wrote the letter to advise me that he was sending it. He told me there was a conflict between the open records law of the state which requires agencies such as the Board of Commissioners to hold open meetings and the law allowing counties to conduct closed bidding processes. He said, in his view, recent court cases suggested that the bidding law was given preference.

County Attorney Haygood had written to me, and copied that letter to Ritter, on February 13, 2008, arguing that the committee reviewing the bids was "not a committee created by the Board of Commissioners" but rather "it is the process devised by Precision Planning, Inc., to evaluate the bids."

At the BOC meeting of February 26, 2008, however, Chairman Melvin Davis acknowledged that the committee reviewing the bids was indeed the Selection Committee created by the BOC as specified in the Request for Proposal for the bids.

I sent Ritter a copy of the transcript of that conversation. He used the term "Selection Committee" in his letter to me.

Ritter’s conclusion that the County is allowed to close the meeting represents a significant restriction on the Open Meetings Law. I argued that, even if the County could close the meeting to review the bids, it had to meet in open first and then go into executive session. Ritter did not address that issue.

The County obviously was interested in publicizing Ritter’s decision. The editor of The Oconee Leader also indicated he got a copy yesterday.

The Banner-Herald ran a front-page story in its January 28 issue about my complaint to the Attorney General and followed that two days later with an editorial criticizing the County.

In my view, the paper should have given Ritter’s response more prominence than it did because of the way it played the earlier story. Today’s story appeared only on page A4.

I plan to discuss Ritter’s conclusion with press freedom and open government advocates in the state.

I have put all of the correspondence regarding the case, including Ritter's February 29 letter to me, on the web site I have created to supplement this blog.

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