Richmond County Board of Elections closes meeting on election dates to public

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 9:15 PM
Last updated Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 1:18 AM
  • Follow Elections

The public was denied access to a Richmond County Board of Elections meeting Thursday where board members and city attorneys discussed legal strategy surrounding the setting of dates for next year’s mayoral and commission elections.

Andrew MacKenzie, the city’s general counsel, said the reason for closing the meeting is that the board needed to discuss “a realistic and viable threat” of litigation regarding the elections.

However, there are no known pending lawsuits, one of the reasons allowed under the Georgia Opens Records Act to close a meeting to the public.

The nonpartisan elections are held in November, according to the city charter, and the U.S. Department of Justice objected to a state senate bill last year seeking to move Augusta elections to July.

But a Sept. 23 opinion by a deputy state attorney general raised the possibility of allowing Augusta to enforce Georgia Senate Bill 92.

The opinion, requested by Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation in June of the Voting Rights Act section requiring Justice Department preclearance of any voting changes that might affect minority voting strength.

MacKenzie wouldn’t disclose what, if any, threat existed, citing “attorney-client privilege.” He has not responded to a request under the Open Records Act for documents showing proof of a threat.

David Hudson, the general counsel for Georgia Press Association, pointed out that the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a meeting cannot be closed based on attorney-client privilege to discuss pending litigation without a “concrete and distinct threat” of legal action.

With none, “it would be improper to close this meeting,” said Hudson, who also represents The Augusta Chronicle as an attorney with the Hull Barrett law firm.

While the city elections are nonpartisan, the dates issue is highly partisan, with the Republican-dominated Georgia legislature pressing to move all local nonpartisan races to July when the state’s general partisan primaries are held. Democrats objected to the change, citing potential voter turnout suppression.

MacKenzie, who wrote a 2012 legal opinion defending Augusta’s scheduling of elections in November, said Thursday if certain “facts” were known, the threat would be obvious, but would not elaborate.

“This is not a close case on whether or not it qualifies for attorney-client privileged discussion,” he said. “They got legal advice today on potential litigation.”

Portions of the closed-door meeting easily audible from the eighth-floor hall of Augusta Municipal Building included conversation about whether the meeting could legally be closed.

The Georgia Open Records Act specifically provides a meeting may not be closed “for advice or consultation on whether to close a meeting.”

Other audible parts of the meeting involved legal strategy should the board opt to follow either Senate Bill 92 or the charter and Justice Department ruling for setting the election dates.

The city’s defense in going against state law might be that it is unconstitutional, a person in the room was overheard saying.

A legal contest between local, state and federal authorities over the dates would be a costly endeavor for a city struggling to balance next year’s budget without dipping into savings, although it would not be the first time the city invited litigation to resolve election issues.

In 2012, the commission sought federal intervention in setting commission and school board district boundaries when commissioners and members of Augusta’s legislative delegation couldn’t agree on them.

A plaintiff in the 2012 federal case, District 4 commission candidate Sammie Sias, said he was unaware of any plans for the group to file suit over the election dates issue.

Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson, who is considering a run for mayor next year, said he was unaware of any potential for litigation over the election dates.

Jackson, who would become the only announced white candidate for mayor in a field that already includes Sen. Hardie Davis, Helen Blocker-Adams and Commissioner Alvin Mason, said he’d prefer an election sooner than later.

“Let’s try something new,” Jackson said. “Is it going to impact the voter dynamic? I don’t know.”

The elections board’s only nonpartisan appointee, accountant Sanford Loyd, declined to explain on why the meeting was closed to the public.

“It met the requirements of the Open Meetings act,” Loyd said.

The other board members, Republican appointees Sherry Barnes and Chip Barbee and Democratic appointees L.C. Myles and Terence Dicks, agreed the session was legal.

The board unanimously affirmed entering the “executive session” and approved an affidavit afterward certifying the discussion fell outside the realm of open government laws.

Comments (4) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
Little Lamb
45989
Points
Little Lamb 11/01/13 - 08:52 am
0
0
Unfortunate

I think this sentence is inaccurately rendered:

But a Sept. 23 opinion by a deputy state attorney general raised the possibility of allowing Augusta to enforce Georgia Senate Bill 92.

I don't think setting the non-partisan election date in July would be enforcing the law (i.e., Senate Bill 92). Instead it would be obeying the law.

The Board of Elections should not be about the business of figuring out whether a state law, duly enacted, might be unconstitutional. That's what lawsuits and judicial orders are for. Instead, the Board of Elections should just follow the law as written and let the chips fall where they may.

Put the elections in July and be done with it.

dichotomy
32911
Points
dichotomy 11/01/13 - 12:39 pm
1
0
Oh yeh, scurrying behind

Oh yeh, scurrying behind closed doors like a bunch of cockroaches to hold an illegal, supposed to be public, meeting will keep you from being sued. Augusta is run, and advised, by IDIOTS and crooks. Another reason for the Southside to separate themselves from these cowards, thieves, and know-nothings.

Darby
25635
Points
Darby 11/03/13 - 11:28 am
1
0
I don't think setting the non-partisan election date

in July would be enforcing the law (i.e., Senate Bill 92). Instead it would be obeying the law.

.
How about the phrase, "implementing the law"?

Darby
25635
Points
Darby 11/03/13 - 12:25 pm
1
0
"Oh yeh, scurrying behind closed doors like a

bunch of cockroaches.............."

.
dichotomy - I'll grant you that it looks funny. On the other hand, I know Lynn Bailey well enough to feel safe saying that she'd probably rather cut her throat than break the law.

Although Lynn is the Director, she does answer to the Board and it IS possible that they could have overridden her objections to a closed session. However, during the eight years that I served, that never happened even once.

For that reason, I'm willing to wait and let the facts come out, as I'm certain they will at some point.

Back to Top

Top headlines

2.1% inflation expected

ATLANTA -- Business executives in the Southeast see inflation a little higher than the Federal Reserve does, according to a survey released Friday.
Search Augusta jobs