Secret votes common in Cobb Cobb

School board says it will change that habit.Meetings law lets boards talk, but not act, in private, AG opinion says.

Some of the secret votes involved lawsuits and the expenditure of taxpayer dollars while others covered more mundane matters, such as the granting of easements on school property, according to records obtained by the AJC under the Open Records Act.

Georgia law permits elected officials to discuss certain subjects in "executive session," out of public view, such as personnel and legal matters and purchasing real estate.

But state Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office, which has the authority to prosecute violations of Georgia's open-meetings laws, has repeatedly insisted elected officials are not permitted to vote behind closed doors.

"All votes, though, even on privately discussed matters, must be taken in public," Baker wrote in a 1998 legal opinion for state lawmakers.

Georgia's Open Meetings Act says certain votes by elected boards in secret meetings that should be open to the public "shall not be binding." But the law gives people only 90 days to contest the legitimacy of those actions. Cobb County school officials said they are not aware of any such complaints about the board's votes. They also said the board took the extra step of ratifying some of its closed-door votes with votes in public proceedings.

Cobb Board of Education Chairman John Abraham said his board relied on the advice of its attorney, Glenn Brock, in voting behind closed doors. Abraham told the AJC Friday that his board would no longer vote in secret and would limit what it discusses behind closed doors.

"In light of the current concerns, we will do a better job of being more conservative in how we interpret the open-meetings law," said Abraham, who has served on the board since 2007 and became chairman in January. "I am the chairman. I take full responsibility for that."

Brock said: "Mistakes were made. I take responsibility for it. They have been corrected."

Former board member Lindsey Tippins, who was chairman before Abraham, did not return calls placed to his home and office.

The board's votes are mentioned briefly in the minutes of the closed-door meetings obtained by the AJC. Among the board's secret decisions were:

A unanimous vote on Feb. 28 last year directing staff to purchase two properties adjacent to Mableton Elementary School. The minutes do not reflect what the board planned for the properties;

Votes on June 26 last year to approve lease agreements for the location of T-Mobile cellphone towers at Walton and North Cobb high schools and Floyd Middle School;

A unanimous vote on May 9, 2007 for the school system to reimburse a family for "reasonable and necessary expenses" for a 12-year-old Barber Middle School student who had been hit in the eye with a hockey stick during a physical education class.

At the board's invitation, Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general, met with members about the state's open-meeting laws in February and cautioned them not to vote on any matter behind closed doors, said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

"Our office has consistently taken the position that votes are not permitted in executive session," Willard said. "We met with the Cobb County Board of Education to discuss various issues under the Open Meetings Act. It was a very fruitful discussion."

Yet, the board has voted at least three times in closed-door meetings since February, according to the minutes of those meetings.

On March 26, for example, the board voted 7-0 to send letters to people about their interest in selling their property to the school system for a certain project. Details about the project are not available because the school system heavily redacted the minutes before providing them to The AJC.

"Since the beginning of 2009 the board has taken steps such as bringing in the assistant attorney general to clearly outline what may or may not be discussed in executive session," Cobb Superintendent Fred Sandersonsaid in statement he issued through a spokesman Friday. "I think we all have a better understanding of what types of discussions are legally confidential, and what should be public."

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