Monday, October 20, 2008

Oconee Agrees to Follow Open Meetings Law

I Don’t Have to but I Will

Without admitting any wrongdoing in the past, Oconee County has informed the state’s Attorney General that it plans to notify the public of meetings of its Drought Contingency Committee and of meetings of other advisory committees in the future in keeping with the state’s Open Meetings Law.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood informed Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter of that decision in a letter of Sept. 18, 2008. Ritter responded to Haygood in a letter of Oct. 15 in which he said he considered the matter resolved.

Ritter sent me a copy of his letter to Haygood as well as Haygood’s letter to him of Sept. 18.

Ritter had sent a letter to Haygood on Sept. 17, 2008, asking him to explain if the Drought Contingency Committee actually had met earlier this year, "and, if so, whether it was properly agendized, noticed, and if summary minutes were prepared."

Documents provided by the county in response to an open records request I filed on May 13, 2008, showed that the Drought Contingency Committee met on Feb. 19, 2008, and approved an increase in water rates for residential users of the county. The county did not provide any evidence of advance notice of the meeting or minutes from the meeting.

At the Feb. 19 meeting, the Committee approved the rate increase, which had been initiated by Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, according to the records released to me by the county. The actual rate increase had been proposed to the Committee by the County’s Utility Department, the documents showed.

The Utility Department did not propose an increase in commercial rates, and the Drought Contingency Committee did not propose one.

Without discussion, the rate increase was approved by the full Board of Commissioners on April 1, 2008, after a report by Drought Contingency Committee Chairman Jim Kundell.

I wrote about the water rate increase and the meeting of the Drought Contingency Committee in a blog on Sept. 8, 2008. On Sept. 9, I sent an email message to Ritter telling him I hoped he would "take the time to read" the posting.

I met Ritter at a meeting in Atlanta On March 18 to honor Heroes of Open Government. We talked briefly about a complaint I had filed with him on Jan. 17 about the county’s refusal to allow me access to a meeting of the Selection Committee the BOC had appointed to review bids for the design of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

Ritter had written me on Feb. 29, 2008, saying he did not believe citizens had a right to attend meetings of the Selection Committee. He and I also have exchanged several email messages and talked over the telephone regarding that decision.

In my email message on Sept. 9, I said that "we need your office to take an aggressive stance in dealing with citizen access to government meetings and government records."

Ritter treated my email message to him as an official complaint and forwarded it to Haygood with his letter of Sept. 17.

Haygood told Ritter in his Sept. 18 letter that the "Drought Contingency Committee is an advisory committee set up by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners in 2003."

According to Haygood, the "minutes of the Board of Commissioners reflect no specific purpose for the committee," yet "it has in fact served as a sounding board and advisory committee for issues related to the drought in the past few years."

Haygood said it is his opinion that the Drought Contingency Committee is not covered by the State’s Open Meetings Law.

"Nonetheless," Haygood wrote, "Oconee County intends to notify the public of such advisory committee meetings and to take the other steps set out in the Open Meetings Law just as if that law applied to such committee meetings, including the ‘Drought Contingency Committee.’"

Ritter took no position on whether Haygood’s interpretation of the law was correct.

"I sincerely appreciate Oconee County taking the position described in your letter," Ritter wrote to Haygood.

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