OPINION: City gadfly now armed and (more) dangerous with a law degree

Matthew Cardinale belts out a tune in reference to the Atlanta City Council not doing enough for the elderly during a council meeting. (Credit: Vino Wong / AJC File)

Credit: vino-wong

Credit: vino-wong

Matthew Cardinale belts out a tune in reference to the Atlanta City Council not doing enough for the elderly during a council meeting. (Credit: Vino Wong / AJC File)

There are gadflies and there are gadflies. And then there’s Matthew Cardinale.

For 15 years, Cardinale has run the online Atlanta Progressive News, a periodical that’s pretty much what it says, picking up info and opinions from around the city, especially at City Hall. But more so, Cardinale has carved out a career being a royal pain in the keister to Atlanta officials.

In 2012, Cardinale, acting as his own attorney, argued before the Georgia Supreme Court and beat the city on a case about how votes are recorded in the minutes of meetings. The city had withheld the names of council members who wanted to change the rules concerning how the public could comment at meetings. And Cardinale is all about public comment.

The thrill of victory moved Cardinale, who is now 39, to attend law school. And last month, he was sworn in as a lawyer by Christopher Brasher, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court. It was a fitting coincidence, as Brasher is the same judge who was overturned by the state Supreme Court all those years ago. (Cardinale says he passed the bar exam on his first try.)

“Perhaps I can take some credit for you being a lawyer,” said Brasher when he saw Cardinale appear on the Zoom screen. “You showed me I was wrong, as a pro-se litigant. And based on that you went to law school.”

“We make beautiful case law together,” responded Cardinale, who said he’d like to now make some money with his law degree doing the same kind of stuff he’s done for free.

But there is no warm and fuzzy feeling around Atlanta City Hall when it comes to Cardinale. He is involved with active lawsuits in both state and federal courts and is seeking $1,000 in civil penalties each from seven city officials and a private attorney, accusing them of subverting the Georgia Open Records Act and the state’s Open Meetings Act.

While some would operate with a scalpel, Cardinale chooses a machete in his crusade for open and transparent government. His lawsuits last year alone have cost the city at least $190,000 in legal fees going to the firm of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore. It’s a tab that keeps growing and has both sides pointing the finger at who is the cause of such outrageousness.

Matthew Charles Cardinale successfully argued during an emergency hearing in Fulton County Superior Court that city election officials violated the law when they disqualified him for failing to meet the residency requirements. (Credit: matthewforatlanta.com)

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In one court motion, the city likened Cardinale’s growing litigation to aggressive cancer. The lawsuit “has already spiraled far afield from where it started,” one of the hired legal guns wrote in a brief. “The City respectfully requests this Court’s assistance in preventing further metastasis.”

The legal filing caused Cardinale to grab a dictionary to look up the medical term.

His filings are certainly circuitous, rolling along like a swollen river picking up debris on the side of the banks. One is titled “Eighth Amended Complaint for Declaratory Relief,” which means it has been revised seven times, causing the city’s lawyers to take a deep breath and read it to find out what’s new.

In one case, he is suing because a City Council committee went into closed session last February to discuss “potential litigation.” The issue at hand was an ordinance dreamed up by Councilman Antonio Brown, who Cardinale ran against in the last election. The proposal was to prevent discrimination against people paying for rent with vouchers.

However, a few days earlier Cardinale had written an article on his news site headlined “Atlanta Ordinance to Require Voucher Acceptance, Preempted by State Law.” Cardinale wrote that state law precludes the city from adding those who pay with vouchers as a protected class from discrimination.

What was the “potential litigation” that caused City Council members to go into closed session? Cardinale’s news article.

He chuckled, pointing out the absurdity in an interview. “So, I tell them what they’re doing is illegal, and that will allow them to go meet in private and discuss illegal things?”

Cardinale is about as left as you get and knowledgeable about affordable housing, but he called the ordinance, which later passed, a “political farce.”

Another lawsuit centers on Cardinale asking for the city’s cable franchise agreement and, he says, being ghosted by city officials for months. He complained that a city attorney told him the franchise agreement document, which sets up millions of dollars in payments to the city, incredibly could not be found after a “diligent search.” He ultimately got it.

And another legal action revolves around who exactly is responsible for getting the city records that the public wants. That is at the core of the officials he wants to be fined for disregarding the law. The city argues that the law lets government agencies designate “custodians” who are responsible for retrieving records, and the people Cardinale wants to face penalties are not those people.

He counters, saying the city is playing word games, and civil action can be brought “against any person who negligently violates the terms of this article.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News went after the city a few years back for being evasive with records. The city came to a settlement and promised to do better.

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks before the city released more than 1.4 million documents pertaining to the City Hall bribery investigation on Feb. 9, 2017. (Credit: HENRY TAYLOR / AJC File)

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I called the city administration and one of its lawyers but they didn’t want to touch this, citing pending litigation. But mostly, they just don’t want to tangle with Cardinale any more than is necessary.

“He sues us every month with an R in it,” said veteran Councilman Howard Shook, who has listened to probably hundreds of Cardinale’s comments over the years at City Council meetings. Cardinale has even reduced his statements to rap lyrics that are performed before the council — “Filing a motion, causing a commotion, protecting the public trust from further corrosion.”

Former City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said Cardinale caused him more than once to call the state attorney general for advice concerning … well, Cardinale.

“There were times that Matthew Cardinale made us better,” said Mitchell, an attorney himself. “But it was also frustrating. People have a right to come down and light us up. But it has changed. People come down to get social media attention and get their bones off elected officials. You’re a sitting duck.”

Attorney Dan Grossman fought the city for years about police abuse and believes officials just fight Cardinale “because they don’t like him. He rubs people the wrong way.”

“I think it’s crazy, they should just give Matthew, or any citizen, the records they request from Open Records,” he said.

“I think he does good work,” Grossman added. “He’s just a little confusing. Is he a journalist? Is he making news?”

Says Cardinale, “There are many records I would not have gotten without litigation. It blows my mind that they will spend all this money rather than turn over the records They have options. Stop breaking the law. Or pick up the phone and let’s work this out.”

I’m sure the phone will be ringing.