Brookhaven City Attorney Christopher Balch.
Brookhaven City Attorney Christopher Balch.

Brookhaven City Council may have violated state Open Meeting laws by discussing land annexations in private executive sessions, City Attorney Christopher Balch warned at the council’s Sept. 22 meeting. As a remedy, the council voted to release the minutes from those meetings, as well as virtually all executive sessions it held since February.

Balch’s review of executive sessions followed a scandal earlier this year over the city withholding an email from the media and the council discussing it in an executive session. The email was from the city manager and described as “sexual harassment” an incident involving former Mayor J. Max Davis. The state Attorney General’s office declared that secrecy to be in violation of Open Record and Open Meeting acts, and Balch’s predecessor as city attorney resigned.

“Let’s err on the side of openness,” said Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams, calling for the wide-ranging release of the minutes.

Williams said Balch was concerned about executive sessions held on Dec. 2, 2014 and March 16, 2015 where the council discussed annexation of Executive Park and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta property. While city-involved real estate transactions can be properly kept private in executive sessions, Williams acknowledged that the conversations in question did not involve that. She said those discussions inadvertently “got off track” into topics that should have been public.

“It wasn’t really a real estate transfer,” said Williams, who was a councilwoman at the time of the meetings. “I would agree…that annexation was not covered [as a valid executive-session exemption] under strict interpretation of the law.”

Councilmen Bates Mattison and John Park said they agreed with ultimately releasing the minutes, but wanted to wait a few weeks for better review of their contents. They were concerned the minutes could contain information validly kept private that could open the city to liability.

“At the end of the day, I’m fine with [releasing] it. But I just think it’s overkill,” Mattison said.

Balch said that he agrees with some of those concerns. In general, Balch said, he believes releasing executive-session minutes is a “bad idea” that could have a “chilling effect” on government. However, he provided the council with several options for releasing them in this case at the council’s request and given the pressure from the public and the Attorney General’s office.

Park’s motion to defer the release of the minutes failed on a 3-2 vote, with Williams as tie-breaker.

Williams and Councilwoman Linley Jones, who moved to release the minutes immediately, said they agree executive sessions have a valid purpose. But the council needs to regain public trust over its past actions, they said.

“Going forward, having restored the confidence of the people…we won’t have to do this again,” Jones said.

The release was approved 3-1, with Mattison as the no vote. The release will include all executive-session minutes since Feb. 10, as well as those from the Dec. 2, 2014 meeting. Any references to pending litigation or people whose privacy must be protected will be redacted by Balch prior to the release, which make take “a couple of days,” he said.

Dale Boone, a resident who is challenging Williams in this fall’s mayoral election, suggested during a public comment period after the release vote that the council members read a booklet about state ethics laws. He said the executive-session minutes are “something the people of Brookhaven have a right to see” and that it is wrong to “cover it up.”

In some other council business:

-The council considered acquiring a house and land at the southeastern corner of Ashford Dunwoody Road and Oak Forest Drive for a new “pocket park.” The half-acre property is on the market for $350,000, and Mayor Williams and Councilwoman Jones advocated considering a fast purchase as part of the city’s commitment to acquiring green space.

“Now is an incredible opportunity…to provide a pocket park to this neighborhood [and] provide a gateway entrance to Brookhaven,” said Williams.

However, Councilmen Mattison and Park noted big outstanding questions, including how to fund such a purchase and zoning-related litigation that may involve the property, according to city attorney Chris Balch.

The council authorized City Manager Marie Garrett to begin negotiating a purchase contingent on council approval, essentially beginning a due-diligence phase.

-The council approved an 18-unit townhome project on Hermance Drive.

Betancourt Construction’s plan targets the same lots—across the street from the DeKalb PATH Academy—that Ashton Woods unsuccessfully sought to build 22 units on last year. Betancourt’s plan won approval for denser rezoning by impressing the council with its aesthetics and tree-preservation aspects.

“It’s a very good project for the area,” said Councilman Joe Gebbia, praising it for going “above and beyond” the city’s newly updated tree-preservation ordinance standards.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.