Cumming maintains in court that it did not violate open meetings law

The city of Cumming and the state remain at odds over whether the city violated the state open meetings law when a video camera was barred from a City Council meeting.

At issue is whether the state can hold cities accountable for observing laws aimed at shedding light on government. The city maintains it has sovereignty under the state constitution to operate without state interference.

During a hearing Thursday in Forsyth County Superior Court, the city refused to admit it violated the state’s open meetings law last year when Mayor Ford Gravitt had police remove a video camera during a City Council meeting. Senior Judge Robert Adamson gave the two sides 15 days to reach a settlement or he will proceed with the case.

Attorney General Sam Olens filed suit against Cumming in June 2012 after nearly two months of negotiations with the city failed to produce a resolution. Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter said in court Thursday that the state had sought an admission from the city that it had violated state law and that steps would be taken to remedy the situation.

But Cumming City Attorney Dana Miles said the city feared that such an admission could be used in a separate suit filed in federal court by the camera’s operator, Nydia Tisdale.

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“If you admit to those facts,” he said, “you admit liability.”

The city of 5,400 is Georgia’s first government to be prosecuted under the state’s new sunshine law, which provides stiffer penalties that include responsibility for attorneys’ fees. In this case, those fees could exceed $100,000.

Adamson said he intends to decide whether Cumming is vulnerable to civil damages — including the attorneys’ fees — unless the city and Attorney General’s Office reach a settlement by Aug. 9. If that deadline goes unmet, Adamson wants both sides to file briefs providing more evidence for their arguments by Aug. 30.

Attorney Kevin Tallant, representing the city, asked the judge Thursday to dismiss the case, claiming that Gravitt, acting in his official capacity as mayor, and the city were immune from suit under the Sovereign Immunity provision of the Georgia Constitution. That provision protects state and local governments from prosecution and civil suit if they are found to be operating in their official capacity.

But Assistant Attorney General Kelly Campanella said it makes no sense for the Legislature to draft a law imposing fines and penalties, then immunize the violators from those penalties. The intent of the law is clear, she said, and the hallmark of every open meetings law is that it is interpreted broadly.

The case stems from an incident April 17, 2012, when Gravitt ordered police to remove a video camera from a City Council meeting. Tisdale protested the action as a violation of state law.

Tisdale was in the courtroom Thursday, video recording the proceedings under special consent from the court.

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