It’s likely that a good majority of Augustans strongly oppose the notion of building a new sports and entertainment arena at the old defunct Regency Mall location.
But even many who are open to the idea are appalled at the way it’s being approached by some city leaders – which is to say in a sketchy, autocratic, clandestine manner.
Few precious details have emerged about the proposal, twice bizarrely approved by a 4-2 vote of a Coliseum Authority that didn’t even initially have the proposal in front of it at the time.
More disturbing still is the closely held, secretive nature of the process. We couldn’t even find out who produced a recent artist’s rendering of the proposal.
Most troubling, though, is the Coliseum Authority’s “executive session” Tuesday that was closed to the public – but open to four Augusta commissioners.
The heavy presumption under state law is for all such meetings to be open to the public, save for narrowly construed exceptions. Such exceptions can include real estate transactions – but in this case, such an excuse for a closed meeting would clearly be a pretense, if not a canard. The proposed deal for the Regency Mall property, as cursory and as much of a moving target as it has been, is already public knowledge.
Moreover, how can Coliseum Authority or Augusta Commission members justify continued back-room deliberations on such a vast public project of such significance as a $110 million arena?
When will the public be brought in the loop and invited to weigh in on the arena we’re going to be tasked with paying for? Opening night?
“Why meet in secret on something so important?” asks Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson – who argues the closed authority meeting involving four commission members violated the state’s open meetings law.
The law and the courts, as the public should, look quite unfavorably on public officials who use “real estate” or “legal” exceptions to the open meetings law as a pretext for keeping out the taxpaying public while discussing the public’s vital business.
Don’t just take our word for it. The Georgia Supreme Court, in Atlanta Journal v. Hill, noted that the open meetings act “was enacted in the public interest to protect the public – both individuals and the public generally – from ‘closed door’ politics and the potential abuse of individuals and the misuse of power …”
The inexorable result of illegal meetings by public bodies – aside from the suspicion and ill will that they inevitably create among the public – is potential legal trouble. Not only can public officials put themselves in a legal bind, they can put their work product in one: Votes taken during or after illegal meetings may very well be overturned by the courts. And rightfully so.
The Coliseum Authority invited all this difficulty when it decided to invite a select few citizens – four commissioners – to a discussion that practically, politically and legally cried out to be held in public.
Even as insular and circumspect as the arena process has played out, surely these public officials must realize they’re doing the public’s business – $110 million or more of it.
Once and for all: Let us in!