Pushy citizen fights for all our rights

It all started over a landfill.

Nydia Tisdale was a property manager for a land investor and a company proposed putting a landfill near property he owned in Forsyth County.

Tisdale’s boss asked her to attend county zoning meetings. And as the proposal worked its way through the process, Tisdale found more and more concerns with the proposal and joined an active group in opposing the landfill. When it became clear the permit was going to be denied, the application was withdrawn. And Tisdale was hooked; she had grown into an activist.

Now Tisdale is well-known as a citizen journalist and operates the blog AboutForsyth.com. She frequently films government meetings and candidate forums with a Sony video camera that was a gift from her husband. She calls the films “Nydeos” and posts them on her site.

Along the way, she’s filed complaints protesting improper candidate financial disclosure and meetings held without proper notice to the public. She filed a lawsuit against the city of Cumming for what she describes as an illegal land deal that she lost on a technicality. It’s not surprising to learn she was a proofreader at her college newspaper — she’s a careful reader and a stickler for the rules.

Tisdale, 51, seems an unlikely candidate for an activist. She looks the part of a suburban housewife and appears reserved and polite. But there’s no doubt she’s persistent. She spends hours and hours filming public meetings and events.

As Tisdale recounted her history of dealings in Forsyth to me in a recent interview, it was easy to see her motivation.

She was disappointed in the landfill fight when she found problems with the application she believes the planning department should have caught. “I would go to meetings and point out mistakes,” she said. “I’m not a planner.”

She was also disappointed at the criticism she received for exercising her rights and the way some public officials seem to find the public mighty inconvenient.

Some elected officials have accused her of harassment and wasting their time. One featured in a video on her site repeatedly interrupts her during a public commenting period to demand to know why a Roswell resident is addressing Forsyth issues when she doesn’t even live there. Finally, another commissioner reminds the board that it’s a time set aside for the public to speak.

There’s no doubt that citizen advocates, and of course journalists of the citizen and professional kind, can be annoying to public officials. As legendary Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said in a key lawsuit about freedom of the press, “Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

I’d suggest that public officials who are dismissive of citizens are really missing the mark: They accept positions as public servants and ignoring that role will just create more mistrust and criticism.

The rights that journalists use to observe public meetings, review public documents and ask questions of elected officials aren’t really journalists’ rights: they are the rights of any citizen. It’s just that most citizens don’t bother to exercise those rights and count on the press to do it on their behalf.

Tisdale knows her rights well. She’s practically memorized “The Red Book,” a citizen’s guide to open government in Georgia, published by Attorney General Sam Olens, the Georiga First Amendment Foundation and the Georgia Press Association. “The Red Book changed my life,” Tisdale says.

That’s why she knew — she was absolutely certain — her rights were being violated when the mayor of Cumming wanted her to stop video recording at a meeting of the Cumming City Council in 2012. She was standing in the back of the room with her video camera on a tripod when Mayor H. Ford Gravitt opened the meeting.

“First of all, a little housecleaning,” the mayor said. “Chief Tatum, if you would, remove the camera from the auditorium. We don’t allow filming inside the City Hall here, unless there are specific reasons.”

Tisdale began to answer, “Respectfully, mayor, Georgia sunshine law…” when he told her it wasn’t open for discussion.

Tisdale was quite loud in her protests as she was escorted from the room, and assured the council she would file a complaint with the attorney general.

She did, and Olens ultimately brought a suit against the city. Often those suits go away when the government agency admits a mistake and pledges to do better next time. This one didn’t go that way. The city argued they should not be fined for violating the state’s open meetings law, which says audio and visual recording of meetings is allowed. The city lost its argument — to the tune of $12,000 in fines plus attorney fees — and has appealed.

Olens wanted the city to admit a violation, but the city felt it could be harmful in another case — a federal lawsuit Tisdale had brought alleging violations of freedom of speech and other charges. That approach didn’t help the city much as the city’s insurer ultimately settled the federal lawsuit with Tisdale for $200,000 before a trial.

That’s quite a victory for open government in Georgia. And it’s especially rare because most complaints and cases against closed government are brought by the media, not by citizens.

Tisdale says the victory wasn’t quite as beneficial to her as it might seem — much of it went to attorney fees and to offset the thousands of dollars she spent in her earlier losing lawsuit.

But the money is not the point to Tisdale — it’s the signal, the validation that she was correct about her rights and the encouragement to other citizens to fight for their rights. “It wasn’t a windfall, but it did send a message that government has to be accountable to the citizens,” she said. She’s proud of her fight.

And she’s still fighting. At a political rally in Dawsonville in 2014 she was told by an officer with the sheriff’s department to stop taping. She protested that the meeting was advertised to the public and she had the property owner’s permission. The officer disagreed and forcibly removed her from the scene. She was charged with obstructing an officer and trespassing; the officer said she elbowed and kicked him, and the charges are pending. From watching the tape, it’s not clear to me whether the officer overreached, but it’s clear that if Tisdale had just been allowed to quietly continue taping, no disruption of the event or arrest would have occurred. The law doesn’t give her the right to cover a political meeting the way it does a meeting of a public body, but it’s hard to see the harm of videotaping an event that’s advertised to the public, includes elected officials and candidates speaking, and is open to scores of attendees.

I asked Tisdale why she doesn’t just shut off her camera when objections come up, why she is willing to protest enough that she risks arrest.

“I don’t expect to be kicked out when I walk into a meeting. I’m just there to record what’s going on,” she said. “It’s not like I plan to make a scene.”

Still, if necessary, she will.

I admire Tisdale’s commitment, especially because I find the tolerance for shenanigans and secrecy among public officials here discouraging. Too often, we write about outrageous activity and readers respond with outrage, but nothing changes. If more citizens channeled a little Nydia and demanded more of their public officials, Georgia would be a better place.

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