There’s a saying among open-government advocates that “sunshine is the best disinfectant” when describing meetings of government bodies, but often local officials close the blinds for certain sensitive matters.
These closed meetings, legal under Georgia law, are called “executive sessions.” Local governments regularly use them to discuss lawsuits, personnel matters and real estate purchases. Elected members of a public body, like a city council, must vote to go into an executive session during an open meeting.
Since Jan. 1, Dunwoody’s City Council has held more executive sessions than other councils and commissions in the Reporter Newspapers coverage area. A controversy surrounding one executive sessions cost the Dunwoody city attorney his job.
Number of executive sessions held by local governments since Jan. 1*
Dunwoody City Council: 13
Fulton County Commission: 10
DeKalb County Commission: 9
Atlanta City Council: 7
Sandy Springs City Council: 6
*Numbers current as of May 25.
Sources: records of individual governments
Local elected officials hold these meetings when they feel the need to protect the interest of the public outweighs the public’s right to observe some discussions. But Gerry Weber, an attorney and founding board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, says they are overused by local governments.
“Closed sessions should be the rarest of rare events,” Weber said. “However, they are far too commonplace in Georgia.”
Between Jan. 1 and May 25, the Dunwoody City Council held 13 executive sessions, more than the governing bodies of Sandy Springs, Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County.
Sandy Springs had the fewest, reporting it had held six. The Dunwoody City Council held a 14th executive session on May 29.
Dunwoody City Manager Warren Hutmacher said the reason the city has held so many executive sessions this year is because the city was in the process of purchasing several pieces of property.
“We had a number of meetings regarding complex land transactions,” Hutmacher said. “There were a number of times we needed to talk to council for direction and to update them. Outside of real estate transactions, I don’t expect the pace of executive sessions to continue.”
As Dunwoody officials discovered, executive sessions can be problematic if the confidential information becomes public.
The Dunwoody City Council on May 29 accepted the resignation of City Attorney Brian Anderson. Anderson faced termination because council members believe he told a local newspaper details of a Feb. 3 executive session about selling city-owned property.
Anderson says he didn’t act improperly because at the time of the meeting only a city’s negotiations to purchase property could be discussed in a closed meeting.
The state’s open meetings law changed in April, making it legal to discuss in a closed meeting selling and leasing property, according to the state Attorney General’s office.
Anderson’s alleged role in the information leak further complicated the issue for Dunwoody. Local government attorneys advise their clients, the elected officials, of what the state meetings law requires. A report on the leak alleges Anderson during the Feb. 3 meeting did not tell council members they were violating the law.
Dunwoody officials say they discussed the sale of property during the Feb. 3 meeting because the topic was so complex that it was unavoidable. The leaked information was about the Georgetown redevelopment plan, “Project Renaissance” involves the sale of the city-owned “PVC Farm” and the purchase of the 19-acre Shallowford Hospital site.
Officials and attorneys with other governments say they are comfortable with the frequency of executive sessions.
“I think that they are appropriately used,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader. He said commissioners avoid having more executive sessions than necessary.
Kristen Denius, the city of Atlanta’s senior assistant city attorney, said private discussions about property purchases protect the taxpayer’s bottom line. If a city council’s offer for a piece of land becomes public knowledge, it weakens the city’s negotiating power, she said.
Sandy Springs Attorney Wendell Willard said governments need to be able to speak candidly with their legal counsel. Sandy Springs has recently resolved a high profile lawsuit with a developer and is in the process of resolving another one with the Church of Scientology.
“I think we do exactly what the law allows us to do,” Willard said.
Staff Writer Melissa Weinman contributed to this story.