The Georgia General Assembly allows city and county governments to go into executive session but only in very limited cases.
While there may be cases where such closed door meetings are necessary, the problem is that when you give government an inch it often takes a mile, or more.
Executive sessions must not be used to conceal the people’s business.
Closed meetings are only legal for a few reasons.
Talking about anything that is not exempt from the Georgia Open Meetings Act behind closed doors is a violation of the law.
Any time a city council, county commission, planning commission, board of education or hospital authority meets, it must hold its deliberations out in the open, for everyone to hear.
In addition, any committee formed by any of those governing bodies must conduct its discussions out in the open.
Executive sessions are never required of any governing body.
The city council, county commission, planning commission, board of education and hospital authority can legally talk about personnel issues, real estate transactions and litigation in open public meetings.
Closed meetings are allowed but not required to discuss certain aspects of those three things, but the legal authority to do so is very limited.
The law itself says the exceptions to Georgia’s open government laws must be interpreted narrowly.
The limitations on those executive session discussions are:
• Real estate transactions — but only to discuss a lease or the sale of a specific piece of property;
• Litigation — but only to discuss legal strategy with an attorney regarding an existing lawsuit or a letter of intent to sue;
• Personnel issues — but only issues involving individual government workers provided no evidence is received against the employee and no personnel policy is discussed.
If during a closed meeting, the discussion goes beyond these three narrow areas, the person presiding over the meeting must stop the discussion immediately.
After the closed meeting, the individual presiding over the meeting must sign a legal affidavit that the discussions never went beyond these three narrow areas.
Then, anything discussed behind closed doors that needs to be voted on must be disclosed in an open meeting.
For example, if a council, commission, board or hospital authority discusses hiring an employee in executive session, when they reconvene in the open public meeting, they must tell who they are hiring and for what position as part of the motion preceding the public vote.
That’s what the law requires.
The city council, county commission, planning commission, board of education or hospital authority cannot discuss the Open Meetings Act behind closed doors.
Discussions about whether or not a discussion is allowed in executive session must take place in an open public meeting.
To be even more clear, if there is any doubt about whether or not something can be deliberated in executive session, that debate itself has to be open to the public, even if it is being discussed with the attorney.
It is also important to point out that the presence of an attorney does not authorize a closed meeting.
Policies, procedures, daily operations and finances cannot be discussed in executive session by city council, county commission, planning commission, school board or the hospital authority.
CNHI Deputy Editor Jim Zachary is regional editor for CNHI’s Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is the vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.