Local cities appear to be doing a good job of public access to meetings in the pandemic’s virtual era of Zoom and Facebook Live, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, which enforces the Open Meetings Act.

The office had not received any complaints about the virtual government meetings in Atlanta, Brookhaven, Dunwoody or Sandy Springs as of the week of April 27, according to spokesperson Katie Byrd. The office advises local governments about the virtual meetings, which are permitted due to the state pandemic emergency order, and monitors media reports about them.

A screenshot from an April 1 Brookhaven Planning Commission meeting that was held by Zoom teleconference.

As a Dunwoody resident, Attorney General Chris Carr is among the local constituents affected by how local cities operate.

“We understand the challenges that the pandemic may create,” said Carr in a written statement, “and we will continue working with our clients, city and county governments, members of the media and all of Georgia’s citizens to ensure that our government maintains the public’s trust by continuing to operate openly and transparently.”

One asterisk may be the Atlanta City Council, which initially was accepting public comments only by email but now accepts input by telephone as well. Matthew Charles Cardinale, a government transparency activist and publisher of Atlanta Progressive News, is taking credit for the change, which he says was required by the city charter’s guarantee that the public will be heard for certain periods.

“I did threaten to sue them and they voluntarily changed from email comments to voicemail comments,” said Cardinale, adding that he aimed his complaint at the city rather than the Attorney General’s Office.

Council President Felicia Moore was not immediately available for comment.

A screenshot of Sandy Springs’ first livestream City Council meeting held on March 17, with members socially distanced but the public not allowed to attend in person.

The Attorney General’s Office previously praised the city of Brookhaven’s early experiments in virtual meetings.

The Open Meetings Act generally guarantees the public notice of and access to meetings of government bodies. The state of emergency allows for teleconferencing as a temporary substitute. The Attorney General’s Office is working with the Georgia Municipal Association and the ACCG, an association of Georgia’s county governments, on advice about best practices for sticking to the Open Meeting Act and transparency principles.

Byrd said the Attorney General’s Office has received some open-meeting complaints from elsewhere in the state, “but none have resulted in violations or advisories.”

Byrd said the office is “staying up-to-date with national trends and guidance that’s being issued. And, we monitor news coverage regarding local meetings as well as social media.”

“We’ve also gotten some calls from city/county governments asking for guidance on how to make sure they are complying with [the Open Meetings Act],” she said. “We’re encouraged to see many local governments around the state adjust to maintain [the] spirit of open government and do what’s right.”

For any member of the public who is concerned there may be a problem with a government meeting, the office continues to offer its Open Government Mediation Program, led by Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo. The program will mediate disputes about access to public meetings or public records. For more information, see the website here.

John Ruch

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