Attorney says commissioners unwittingly broke open meetings law

Fulton County’s attorney says four commissioners violated the state’s open meetings law last month when they sat together and heard residents rail against Republican efforts to reshape the county government.

But interim County Attorney Larry Ramsey said it was a technical violation, committed unintentionally, and the officials shouldn’t worry about being prosecuted. First-time violations are punishable by fines of up to $1,000.

On Feb. 17, a quorum of four commissioners — Emma Darnell, Bill Edwards, Joan Garner and Robb Pitts — showed up at a town hall meeting held at a senior center in west Atlanta. Darnell hosted the event to raise awareness about several bills introduced by north Fulton’s state lawmakers, which she and other Democrats say will financially vanquish the county and hurt poor and elderly residents who rely on its services.

Though the county publicized the forum through news releases, it did not advertise it as a commissioners’ meeting or publish notice in the legal organ newspaper, as required by law. The four commissioners sat at table together at the front of the room, speaking amongst themselves and to the crowd.

Several of them said they didn’t know such a meeting falls under the Open Meetings Act.

“The definition of a public meeting typically turns on whether a quorum of public agency members meet, at a predetermined time, to discuss public business,” Georgia First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer said in an email. “In this case, all of those elements seem to be there, and the matters discussed are of keen interest to the citizens of Fulton County.”

On Wednesday Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Republican from north Fulton, asked the four to report their violation to the state Attorney General’s Office to avoid action against the board, but they refused. The request added to tensions mounting between Hausmann and her colleagues over her support of Republican bills.

Garner said the meeting wasn’t a secret, pointing out that a north Fulton resident was there. Darnell said she disagrees with the county attorney.

“Even if Liz Hausmann is doing a meeting up there in podunk north Fulton,” Commissioner Bill Edwards said, “if I want to go, I’m going.”

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