Originally created 08/29/98

Closed meeting at issue



The Augusta Chronicle has asked Georgia's attorney general to intervene to keep meetings between the Augusta Commission and the Bush Field Airport Commission open.

At week's end, the request was under consideration.

Members of the two commissions met behind closed doors Monday for nearly two hours to talk about the city's wetlands project.

City Attorney Jim Wall said the meeting should be closed because the groups were discussing potential legislation and in order to protect attorney-client privilege.

Some city officials said later the meeting was closed because so much money is at stake.

The Chronicle's attorney said closing the meeting violated state open meetings laws, since commissioners invited others to participate.

"We feel an obligation ... to protect the public's right to know how its money is spent," said Julian Miller, general manager of The Augusta Chronicle. "The General Assembly agrees with us or it never would have passed the Sunshine Laws, and certainly would not have reinforced it just this year."

On Wednesday, Mr. Miller wrote a letter to Attorney General Thurbert Baker, asking him to rule that the closed-door meeting was illegal.

A newly enacted law authorizes the attorney general to bring judicial action to enforce laws relating to public records and public meetings.

If the attorney general intervenes, "it would be a signal throughout the state that neither the attorney-client exception to Open Meetings nor other exceptions can be abused or misused to prevent public access," Mr. Miller wrote.

Daryl Robinson, deputy counsel to the attorney general, said Mr. Baker's office received Mr. Miller's letter on Thursday.

The attorney general's chief deputy has reviewed the newspaper's request, Mr. Robinson said.

But so far, Mr. Baker has not decided whether to intervene, he said.

Mr. Miller said the newspaper was compelled to ask for legal intervention to protect the public's right to open government.

"Our mayor and commission, as well as our city attorney, obviously misunderstand the purpose of the law and the obligations of their offices. They haven't heard objections to their actions until now. Perhaps a legal ruling by the state can get their attention," Mr. Miller said. "That's why we called on Mr. Baker to enforce the law. He has said in the past that he supports open government. Here is his first chance to prove it."