The Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority violated the state’s open meeting law Tuesday by allowing four Augusta commissioners into a closed-door discussion on the James Brown Arena, the general counsel for the Georgia Press Association said Wednesday.
David E. Hudson, who also is a partner in Augusta’s Hull Barrett law firm, said in a statement that the authority’s decision to allow commissioners into closed-door discussions on a proposal to locate the arena at the Regency Mall site was tantamount to giving “selective attendance rights” to the public.
“A strong argument can be made that the meeting was not actually closed; the authority selectively allowed some members of the public, but not all, to attend,” Hudson said. “Giving selective attendance rights can be argued to violate the Open Meetings Act and therefore the closed meeting itself was illegal.”
“The harm from such a closed meeting, which should have been open, is the public has no idea of what may have been said by the four (commissioners) to try and persuade the authority to take the vote that it did,” he added. “If the meeting had been held in the open, then the public would have had an opportunity to know whether the authority was receiving accurate or complete input from the four (commissioners). At present, the public can only speculate.”
The four commissioners allowed to stay in the room after the authority voted to go into “executive session” were Dennis Williams, Sammie Sias, Ben Hasan and Bill Fennoy. After the meeting was reopened, the authority voted 4-2 to approve an offer from Regency Mall owner Cardinal Management that, among other things, gives the city 10 acres of land for the arena and allows the New York-based company to retain development rights to the surrounding property.
Authority Attorney Ed Enoch on Tuesday said the closed-door meeting was legal. He reiterated that Wednesday, adding that the matter falls under provisions of the law exempting real estate acquisitions from public discussion.
Commissioners, Enoch said, ultimately will have the final say on whether the Cardinal offer is accepted.
“The fact that (authority members) asked to have the commissioners remain, I don’t see that as being any different from when we’ve had real estate agents, architects or anyone else who was relevant to the discussion (in previous closed-door meetings),” said Enoch, a partner in the Augusta-based Enoch Tarver law firm. “Ultimately, the commissioners are part of the group that has to fund it…They ultimately are going to be part of the deal, if a deal is to be done.”
Following the Tuesday meeting, the four commissioners told an Augusta Chronicle reporter, who formally objected to the meeting, they did not participate in the closed-door discussion.
Hudson said state law allows anyone wishing to challenge “the subsequent vote for having been based on the preceding illegally closed meeting” to take action within 90 days. He said the Open Meetings Act provides for a $1,000 civil penalty to be imposed against any person who even “negligently” causes a violation of the law. Agencies found to have acted without substantial justification can be ordered to cover the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees, he said.
Hudson said he believes the authority’s actions also violate the spirit of the open meetings law.
“It is an affront to good public policy to even attempt to close a meeting when an issue of such importance, potential expenditure of over $100 million, is being discussed,” he said. “Under these circumstances there is simply no reasonable argument to be made that it was in the interest of the public that the Authority discussions should be closed to the public and conducted in secret.”
Enoch maintains the closed-door meeting and subsequent vote were above-board.
“I wouldn’t have allowed them to do it if I thought it was wrong,” Enoch said. “I still stand by the decision.”
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.