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Atlanta law firm reverses course, opens mayoral candidate forum to media

Update 3/02/17: Dentons attorney Steven Labovitz said early Thursday that today’s forum for candidates hoping to be Atlanta’s next mayor will be open to the press afterall, a reversal of the firm’s stance on Wednesday when the meeting was closed.

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, one of nine major candidates vying for the mayor’s job, said that she reached out to the firm early Wednesday and told members she was uncomfortable with the closed format and would not participate unless it was open to media. 

Candidate Michael Sterling, the former director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, posted on his campaign’s Facebook page late Wednesday that he would livestream the event to allow voters access to the proceedings.  

It is not yet known whether state Sen. Vincent Fort, who was the first to pull out of the forum over concerns that it was closed, would now participate.

The forum is set for 4:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m. Broadcaster Frank Ski is scheduled to moderate. 

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Story is developing.

Original story: The public and the press are being barred from a forum today for candidates hoping to succeed Mayor Kasim Reed, prompting at least one contender to pull out over questions of transparency.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, one of nine major candidates vying to be Atlanta’s next leader, said on Wednesday he was dropping out of a forum put on by the Atlanta office of mega law firm Dentons because he thinks a behind-closed-door forum is crossing the line.

“I am setting down a marker in this campaign: I am not going to a forum that’s closed to the public or the media hosted by big-shot lobbyists working for moneyed interest and their clients,” Fort said.

Attorney Steven Labovitz, who helped put together the event, said it was only for “our clients and our firm – we promised the candidates there would be no press.”

The forum comes as the candidates begin ramping up their campaign to replace Reed, who is in the last year of his two terms in office. The hopefuls also are trying to make their case as City Hall is embroiled in a “pay-for-play” bribery scandal over contracting. At least two contractors have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery.

Three of the candidates reached on Wednesday split on whether they planned to attend. Ceasar Mitchell and Kwanza Hall said they would be at the forum while Mary Norwood said she would not.

Law firms and civic groups often quietly hold political events featuring candidates, but rarely do they explicitly exclude the media.

Dentons is not the first to exclude the public and press from a candidate forum. A private gubernatorial forum held in May 2010 by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at the Ritz-Carlton at Reynolds Plantation was also closed the public and media, prompting protests from media outlets covering the race.

The campaign manager for former Gov. Roy Barnes called his decision to attend that event a “lapse in judgment.”The top aide to Thurbert Baker, another contender in that race, said he hoped going forward all “organizations hosting candidate forums and debates will allow media access.”

Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said candidates should err on the side of transparency, particularly in light of the bribery scandal roiling the mayor’s race.

“With all that’s going on at City Hall,” he said, “is this what we should be engaged in?”

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