AG: East Point Council violated open meetings law

The state Attorney General’s office said it has sent its findings that some East Point City Council members violated the Georgia Open Records Act to Fulton County's solicitor general for possible criminal charges.

The state’s Law Department notified East Point of its findings after spending almost two months investigating a complaint that five members of the council routinely violated the law by making decisions before public meetings via email.

“Council members are attempting to conduct city business prior to the council meeting of which the public is aware,” wrote Senior Assistant Attorney General Russell Willard.

Willard said discussions via email are no different than face-to-face discussions, even if all members don't read their emails at the same time.

“The result of that conduct by the council members is to deprive the public of any reasonable means of access and that conduct violates both the spirit and the letter of the Open Meetings Act," Willard wrote. “Apparent violations of the Open Meetings Act ... may constitute criminal violations of the act.”

Fulton County Solicitor Carmen Smith, who prosecutes misdemeanors, said Friday she had only received the AG's letter Thursday night and it was too soon to determine what will happen next.

“I will review it and see where it takes us from there,” she said.

A council spokesman said in an email that East Point will give the attorney general more information to support its contention that members did not break the law.

“The city believes that ... no member of the City Council engaged in conduct that violated the act," the statement said. "The city remains fully committed to compliance with the Georgia Sunshine Laws."

East Point resident Laura Borders wrote the state’s lawyers in May complaining that five of the eight council members would coordinate in advance of a public meeting what they would and would not do in session. She also sent copies of emails to back up her claim.

“If those were illegal meetings, what about these decisions?” Borders said.

The law states the attorney general can investigate allegations that the state’s Sunshine Law has been violated. The law also allows for misdemeanor criminal charges, which could mean up to 12 months in jail or fines, if the public is not allowed to be present at any time there is a quorum or a majority of the council members.

Several council members deny there were any secret meetings or emails.

“I think they’re incorrect,” Council member Steve Bennett said of the contention that the council met illegally.

Asked if the council violated the law especially in regards to emails that discussed planned action at public meetings, he replied, “Hell, no.”

“I don’t have no control over when someone emails me. And if I don’t return an email, I don’t know how someone can construe that that was a secret meeting,” Bennett said.

Member Jacqueline Slaughter-Gibbons said she cannot be accused of violating the law because she doesn't read her email.

“We haven’t been meeting in private,” Slaughter-Gibbons said. “I do not meet in private. ... I don’t send emails and I don’t read emails.”