Originally created 08/30/98

A call to Thurbert Baker 083098 - The Augusta Chronicle



During his longtime stint as Georgia's attorney general, Michael Bowers used the power of his office to put some needed bite into the open meetings law.

As the state's top independent legal officer, the attorney general is in a much stronger position to wield this kind of influence over local governing bodies than district attorneys, whose budgets depend on the generosity of their county commissions.

This isn't to say that with Bowers in office, there were no compliance problems. There were. However, they've gotten worse since he left -- even though Bowers' successor, Thurbert Baker, told The Chronicle months ago that, with regard to sunshine laws, he'd continue in the Bowers tradition.

If Baker means that, then he will not let pass the Augusta Commission's outrageous decision to bar the public from its meeting with the Bush Field Airport Commission the other day.

The topic under discussion -- a conflict between the city's clean-water wetland program and the airport's important expansion plans -- is of huge public interest. It involves tens of millions of dollars and confusing mandates from two federal agencies.

Yet on the sorry advice of City Attorney Jim Wall, who doesn't have the vaguest notion of what sunshine laws mean, commissioners from the two panels met secretly on the phony grounds that legal matters might come up. The dodge drew nary a peep of protest from Mayor Larry Sconyers or ex-Mayor Ed McIntyre, who seeks his old job back in November.

It is the experience of this newspaper, as well as journalists around the state, that local government, boards and authorities regularly abuse the attorney-client privilege to shut the public out of important, albeit politically sensitive, policy discussions.

When this happens, it is a clear signal to the attorney general. He can obtain a court declaration that the closed meeting conducted by the Augusta Commission Aug. 24 was illegal. This would go a long way toward insuring future sunshine law compliance, in our community as well as others.

Such intervention by the A.G.'s office would also help lead to a discussion of why the law was abused here and send a message throughout Georgia that neither the attorney-client exception to open meetings nor other trumped up exceptions can be manipulated to keep public scrutiny out of the public's business.

Baker's previous lack of commitment to public access has come under fire from the Georgia Press Association. But if Baker moves on this vital matter, great! If not, will his GOP challenger speak out? What say you, David Ralston?