Meeting maneuvers kept public eyes off projects | www.myajc.com

10
Mar

Meeting maneuvers kept public eyes off projects | www.myajc.com

Cobb commissioners knew spending $300 million on a new Atlanta Braves stadium would raise the ire of anti-tax advocates. Paulding airport officials realized their idea to start commercial air service could provoke outrage from residents.

In both cases, government officials took extraordinary steps to keep information from the public until the deals were largely finalized, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

Paulding airport authority board members, for example, held a retreat last summer at which they discussed with FAA and other officials the potential of commercial flights coming to the small airfield. They held that meeting 20 miles away in Douglas County.

No public notice was published prior to the meeting, and the airport authority kept the official summary of the discussions private by neglecting to produce minutes for approval until six months later.

And at the time of the retreat, the authority had already quietly entered into a lease with the company trying to commercialize the airport. The minutes from the retreat were not approved and posted to the authority’s website until months after that deal was made public in October.

In Cobb, the four district commissioners first learned details about the Braves move in individual meetings with Commission Chairman Tim Lee and Braves officials, so as to avoid a quorum that would force open those meetings.

Then on Nov. 13, as the public clamored for details about how much the county would spend and how it would pay for the stadium, district commissioners went in pairs to a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, where they learned about the financing plan from business leaders and Braves officials.

Lee wasn’t present at those sessions, so two commissioners at a time attended without creating a quorum of the five-member board.

The financial deal was made public the next day. It calls for spending $8.6 million a year in county-wide property tax revenue, and a slightly larger amount from a trio of other taxes and fees that will be applied in targeted areas of the county. It will last 30 years.

Hollie Manheimer, an attorney and executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said both cases appear contrary to the Georgia’s Open Meetings Act, which says meetings must be public if “any official business, policy, or public matter of the agency is formulated, presented, discussed or voted upon.”

“The Open Meetings Act in Georgia has always been designed to aid citizen access, not arm public agencies against it,” Manheimer said. “To the extent meetings are moved out of the county, improperly noticed, and improperly recorded, these barriers impede citizen access rights.”

As to the round-robin meetings Cobb commissioners had with business leaders, Manheimer said: “If the … act exists for any purpose, it’s this situation.”

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