The editor of Atlanta Progressive News is suing the city of Atlanta and members of the Atlanta City Council, including Alex Wan, who is gay and represents District 6. The lawsuit demands that the City Council make public a vote made during a council retreat about limiting public comments during council committee meetings.
Matthew Cardinale, who is gay, filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court on May 17 alleging the council did not keep an official record of the vote and therefore violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Council members named in the suit are Wan, Ceasar Mitchell, Felicia A. Moore, Carla Smith, Ivory Lee Young, Howard Shook, Joyce Sheperd and H. Lamar Willis. They were served copies of the suit on May 24. Rhonda Dauphin Johnson, municipal clerk, is also named in the suit as is the City of Atlanta.
Cardinale has been writing about the suit on his website.
Currently, the standing rule is that members of the public have two minutes each to speak at City Council meetings. In committee meetings, the chairperson can decide the length of time a person speaks. Joyce Sheperd, who is chair of the Community Development/Human Resources committee, brought up the idea of limiting committee public comment to five minutes per person.
Wan told the Georgia Voice that the vote at the retreat that Cardinale is suing over was not an official vote, so not having an official record of how each City Council member voted is not breaking any open records law.
“At the retreat there was dialogue about the issue. Felicia Moore asked how everybody stood on this to see if this [limiting public comment] was worth pursuing,” Wan said.
He argued that the lawsuit fails for two reasons — the retreat was not a secret meeting and public notice was given, and that the discussion about public comment was basically a straw poll to see if the issue should be pursued further.
“It was just a lark,” Wan said. “No action was taken. Everything stayed the same. The irony is [Cardinale] got what he wanted. I’m baffled he would want to waste city resources this way. We have really pressing issues we should be focusing on. We have very open, liberal policies for public comment.”
Cardinale emailed each of the council members asking how they voted on the issue and six did not respond, including Wan. Wan emailed the city’s legal department asking for its back up if he and other council members were to be sued by Cardinale and copied Cardinale on the email:
“I have no intentions of answering his question. I don’t appreciate this manner of bullying over a matter I believe he will have little or no grounds for any lawsuit.
“That said, I wanted to make sure that as our counsel, you’re comfortable with my position and that if he does end up filing the lawsuit as threatened that the City is prepared to defend me and any other Councilmembers that choose not to submit to his tactics,” the email said.
Wan stands by his description that Cardinale was harassing City Council members.
“He says we were voting on a proposal and there should have been a roll call when in reality we were not voting. Eight said they were comfortable with how things were, seven said we should explore. Then he started harassing council, firing off emails to council, legal, the clerk,” Wan said.
Cardinale says he never said there should have been a roll call vote.
“What I said in my filing, very clearly, is that the Georgia Open Meetings Act requires that vote details be listed for both roll call and non roll call votes,” he said.
“Nine have told him what their position is. Six have not. I am one of those. I am one of the Secret Six. I just don’t appreciate how he was going about it,” Wan added. And how did Wan vote in the straw poll?
“I was one of the council members who said we should explore that as well as how council members conduct themselves and operate. I didn’t respond to [Cardinale] because I didn’t appreciate what he said, it was harassment,” Wan said.
Cardinale disagrees with Wan’s description of his seeking to find out who voted which way as harassment.
“In my opinion, he should appreciate I gave him the chance” to state how he voted, Cardinale said.
“I have taken extraordinary steps. I think the stuff from Alex about me bullying him is a mischaracterization and it shouldn’t even matter,” he said. “Just because I didn’t say ‘please.’ As a reporter, my primary obligation is to my readers and that doesn’t mean I have to play nice. I did a lot to reach out to Alex.”
Wan said his interest in limiting public comment is not trying to prevent public input to council members and he also believes the council members are sometimes guilty of taking too much time during meetings.
“Every minute we save we can be doing the city’s work and discussing policy. We’re frustrated because there is not enough time in the day. Five minutes is a lot of time to talk,” Wan said.
“And the chair can waive the five minute rule if someone is giving a lot of information and goes over. There are also so many other ways to communicate with council. With emails you have written record. If we as a council operate more efficiently it sends a message to the city,” he added.
“This was in no way brought up to shut people up. This is to encourage public participation. I’ve had constituents tell me they can’t attend meetings that last three or four hours. That discourages public participation. I think this does encourage public participation.”