Atlanta City Council skirts state open-meetings law

Monday, October 19, 1998

A private meeting among Atlanta's city council members has drawn mixed reactions from news organizations and open-government advocates.

Atlanta City Council President Robb Pitts recently met with seven members of the council in his office to discuss a personnel issue.

A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had asked to sit in on the impromptu meeting. According to an article in the Constitution, Pitts said that seven city council members in his office did not constitute a quorum, and therefore the meeting wasn't required to be open to the public. He then asked the reporter to leave the room.

Under Georgia state law, meetings attended by a quorum (in this case, more than seven members) of an elected body must be open to the public. The law also requires that an elected body give 24-hours notice prior to a meeting.

Just then, two more city council members entered the room — raising the number present to nine — but two others immediately left. Pitts invited the reporter to stand outside to ensure that no more than seven city council members were present at one time.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said that while Pitts technically did not violate the open meetings law, he definitely violated the spirit of the law.

Manheimer also said that in addition to limiting the number of council representatives in a meeting, there is a “more common situation where a meeting might not even take place. Council members sometimes telephone each other,” she said. “No meeting takes place, yet public business will transpire” over the telephone.

“Typically, in Georgia, we have a well-written open meetings law with the general rule of openness, and our case law interprets [it that way],” Manheimer said. “Any attempt at closure is an exception to the extent that it undermines the purpose of the law.”

Councilman Pitts said that he did apologize to the reporter for excluding him, but denied any attempt to violate the open meetings law.

“We didn't have a quorum,” Pitts said. “This issue at hand was of a personal nature — personal to the individual — and we chose not to discuss this sensitive issue on the floor of the Council.”