The first meeting of the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport Advisory Board since a fatal crash in October was held without full public notice, apparently being posted only on the private social network Nextdoor, and may have violated the state Open Meetings Act.

A spokesperson for DeKalb County, which runs the public airport in Chamblee on the Brookhaven border, says that future meetings will receive extensive public notice.

Mario Evans, center rear, director of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, discusses incident statistics and safety risk calculation at the Nov. 18 meeting of the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport Advisory Board, which may have violated the state Open Meetings Act. (John Ruch)

At the board’s Nov. 18 meeting, held at the airport’s administrative office, some in the small group of attendees expressed concern about a lack of notice. Airport Director Mario Evans said that county public relations officials put the notice only on nearby Nextdoor groups rather than countywide public notice on the grounds that the general public would not be interested and would feel overwhelmed by emails. A county spokesperson later confirmed the limited Nextdoor notice and did not respond to questions about such bare-minimum requirements as posting a notice at the meeting room.

“The [county] communications department is in charge of that, how they sent it out,” Evans said. “They said sending it out to the entire county is not the right thing to do.”

The county’s use of Nextdoor to publicize the airport board meeting may have violated the state Open Meetings Act, according to David Hudson, an attorney who serves on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“There is no law that allows notice just to select recipients,” said Hudson.

If a meeting violates the Open Meetings Act, according to a Georgia First Amendment Foundation guide, all official actions taken during it can be set aside, and officials knowingly involved in making it private can be charged with a misdemeanor or hit with a civil penalty, with a maximum fine of $1,000 in either case. A court challenge to a meeting can be filed within 90 days.

Airport safety was a major agenda item due to residents’ concerns about the plane crash into nearby homes. But finding out about that agenda, or the meeting itself, was difficult. A master calendar of board meetings published earlier this on the county’s airport website listed the installment as a week earlier. No notice of the rescheduling or the agenda were posted on the site. In fact, no board agenda has been posted there since July and no meeting minutes since June.

Resident Jordan Fox, who volunteers on a citizens advisory committee for the airport’s master plan update, said he learned of the meeting date change only in passing in an email conversation with Evans. The Reporter heard about the meeting from local residents and attended it.

County spokesperson Leslie Agee confirmed that the private social network was used for the meeting notice, but did not respond to questions about why.

“The Airport Advisory Board Meeting notice was posted on the county’s Nextdoor account to all residents living within 2 miles of the airport,” Agee said. “All future notices will also be posted on the PDK Facebook page, PDK website, news releases, the DeKalb Relay newsletter and [the] digital front marquee sign located at the entrance of the airport.”

California-based Nextdoor operates a network where users can create hyperlocal, private social networks for their neighborhoods. Users must register and be verified as local residents; others are shut out of the exclusive network. Evans said that PDK officials themselves cannot gain access to the local Nextdoor groups.

Government officials conducting business on Nextdoor has raised open records and open meetings questions across the country. Earlier this year, city commissioners in California were reprimanded for violating an open meeting law by holding a virtual meeting on Nextdoor.

Exclusive use of Nextdoor for the airport board meeting would be a similar open meetings violation, Hudson said. However, the law contains two bare-minimum notice requirements for rescheduled meetings that might make the board’s gathering legal, though Agee did not respond to questions about whether the county fulfilled them. One is posting a notice at the site of the meeting itself, and the other is notifying the county’s official legal advertising outlet, which is the DeKalb Champion newspaper. The legal ad manager at the Champion said she could not find any such meeting notice.

The airport safety part of the Nov. 18 meeting included Evans’ review of fatal accidents involving PDK flights since 1999, some of which happened farther than 2 miles from the airport and such neighboring counties as Fulton and Gwinnett.

The agenda also included votes on an airport leasing ordinance revision and a subleasing agreement between Pope Retail Properties and Carvana, and reports on the master plan and aircraft noise.

When residents pressed Evans about the meeting notice during a public comment period, board member Mike Reeves bristled at the tone. “Why do we have to be so contentious at every meeting?” he asked.

Fox said that airport communications has been a “big issue” with the master plan process as well. “I know they are working on it, but there are several of us on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the master plan that want to see a commitment to better communications in the master plan,” he said.

John Ruch

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