MARTA told its legislative oversight committee Thursday that it did not violate the state’s Open Meetings Act during its search for a new CEO.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is investigating whether MARTA held an illegal vote and otherwise violated the open meetings law.
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atanta, who heads the General Asssembly’s MARTA oversight committee, sent Olens a Sept. 13 email in which board members were asked for their ‘vote” and noting that: “We decided that by close of business today we would have decided on our successor.” The public vote to hire San Antonio transit chief Keith Parker was on Oct. 4.
Olens declined comment on the MARTA case because it’s an open investigation. But the attorney general told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the Open Meetings Act prohibits any voting by a public agency in private, except for a non-binding vote in real-estate transactions. Executive searches do not qualify for any exception regarding voting.
MARTA Board Chairman Fred Daniels told the committee the board’s lawyer said only the vote naming the new general manager needed to be public. Previously board attorney Charles Pursley had described the “vote” mentioned in the emails as simply gathering opinions to winnow the candidate pool and the only public vote required was the “binding” vote.
“There was a great deal of vetting going on,” Daniels told the committee.
Board member Barbara Kaufman, who chaired the search and sent the email, told the AJC that she followed Pursley’s advice and instructions on how to conduct the search.
Georgia First Amendment Foundation head Hollie Manheimer said straw polls circumvent the open meeting law and noted the law now makes efforts at such circumvention illegal.
“This seems to fit that profile,” she said.
A violation of the Open Meeting Act is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Pursley previously told the AJC that he expected all board members would put disagreements behind and unite behind a single candidate for the public vote on a new general manager.
Olens questioned the propriety of sending a message that all board members had supported a single candidate if they had disagreed about who was best qualified.
“Clearly that is not good government and one should expect better,” he said. “The fact that an action may be consistent with state law doesn’t mean it is appropriate and we should expect our government officials to have higher standards.”
Attorney Robert Highsmith, who represents the board in the investigation by Olens’ office, said MARTA officials had operated at a higher standard by making two finalists’ names public. Highsmith said legally the board could have winnowed the finalist list down to one contender. He also contended board members were free to poll each other in private.
“It is perfectly appropriate for members to ask each other how they intend to vote — it happens all the time,” he said.