Started at the The Chronicle as a night police reporter in 2000, after moving to Augusta from Lynchburg, Va. The following year, joined the Special Projects team. In 2003, covered the invasion of Iraq as an embedded reporter with the Augusta-based 319th Transportation Company. Served as the Society of Professional Journalists' Georgia Sunshine Chair from 2007 to 2009. After Sylvia Cooper retired in 2008, spent a little over a year as the newspaper's city government reporter, writing The City Core both as a weekend print column and as an online blog. This year, joined the newly-formed Public Service team.
 
Posted December 11, 2009 10:36 pm - Updated December 12, 2009 12:27 pm

Attack on media just nonsense

After reading General Counsel Chiquita Johnson’s proposal to clamp down on the news media at Augusta Commission meetings, I had one question:

What are they smoking over there in the Law Department?

In a resolution that assumes neither the Georgia Open Meetings Act nor the First Amendment carries weight anymore, Ms. Johnson is looking to ban reporters from talking to elected officials in chambers or in the hallway and to restrict the number of news cameras in the room, as if every commission meeting were an O.J. Simpson trial.

The resolution would have come up at Monday’s Legal Administration Committee meeting, but there was no quorum. So it goes to the full commission Tuesday with no recommendation.

Ms. Johnson won’t call me back, but I can only assume this is her idea. I can’t find any commissioner saying reporters cause so much distraction that they need to get a room, specifically a “media room” with a live feed of the meeting. Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson says that part of the plan is legal as long as sitting in there is optional, but what sane journalists would choose to have a wall between them and the politicos they’re covering?

And the part about interviews only being allowed in this press room – that part is illegal unless the commission wants to ban all conversation in chambers and by the elevators, Mr. Hudson said.

If the cramped committee space really poses a fire hazard and television cameras block access for disabled people, as Ms. Johnson’s resolution asserts, why not just move everything into the big room?

Someone should have put a stop to this draconian nonsense when she took total control of all open records requests. Her assault on open meetings won’t be the end of it.

There's a greater power grab in the works, one that involves a charter change and would set her up as a virtual czar with police powers and power to launch investigations into any city department, authority or contractor doing business with the city. This came up briefly in Monday’s Administrative Services Committee, under some indiscernible guise, but none of the commissioners understood what they were voting on. On a suggestion from J.R. Hatney, they voted unanimously to have Ms. Johnson explain it to them in pairs. No sense in doing these things in public, I suppose.

Courts reporter Sandy Hodson and I couldn’t understand what we were reading either, so she e-mailed copies to some attorneys, who reacted with shock and awe.

“This is going to make her untouchable,” one attorney said, “and make everyone else touchable by her.”

And, while no commissioner has asked for a change in the charter, she’s been paying an Atlanta attorney $250 an hour to help rewrite the city’s laws. Maybe that’s why “Charter of the City of Atlanta” was written in the proposal at one point when it should have said Augusta.

If commissioners are seriously considering vesting her with “peace officer” authority, I hope they’ll consider her work history more so than they did when they hired her. As Ms. Hodson and I found out through an open records request, three years ago Ms. Johnson was fired from a job in the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s Legal Services Division over unauthorized expenses on an American Express corporate card.

According to an assistant comptroller’s memorandum, there were charges to the Home Shopping Network, purchases of jewelry, beauty products, prescription drugs and groceries, and she didn’t keep up with the payments.

From what I’m hearing, she could soon lose another government job, and it won’t be because of six white votes.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.