Atlanta Police LGBT Board accused of violating state’s Open Meetings Act

Other members appointed to the board by the mayor with the help of Powell are Terence McPhaul, executive director of YouthPride; Philip Rafshoon, owner of Outwrite; Glen Paul Freedman, assistant to Lisa Borders; Tracy Elliott, executive director of AID Atlanta; Molly Simmons, a former police officer and national co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign Board of Governors; Josh Noblitt, social justice minister at St. Mark United Methodist Church; and Ebonee Bradford-Barnes, also on the national Board of Governors for HRC.

The board agreed 7-2, through a series of emails, to not have the media attend the meetings with the mayor and police chief. Instead, the board agreed to sit down with the GA Voice after each meeting to explain what they were told in the meetings by the mayor and chief, specifically about punishments handed down to police officers involved in the Eagle raid. Scathing investigations showed officers did not follow procedures as well as broke the law during the raid of the gay Midtown bar on Sept. 10, 2009.

Freedman, chair of the board, asked for the city attorneys to advise the board if the meetings with the mayor and chief should be open to the media. In a letter to Freedman dated Aug. 22, Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristen Denius states, “The Law Department reviewed the Bylaws and Mission Statement of the Board and agrees that the Board is not subject to the requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.”

Denius further states that the board is not an “agency” as defined by the Open Meetings Act and explains that an “agency is either an actual creation of a governing body, such as the Atlanta City Council, or a non-profit which receives more than one-third of its funding as a direct allocation of tax funding through such a governing body. Unless one of these conditions applies to the Board, it is not an ‘agency’ as defined by state law. Thus, the requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act do not apply.”

The city’s Law Department also advises the advisory board that it “purely advisory in nature with no power or authority to legally bind the city.” Denuis cites the 1987 case Atlanta Journal v. Hill “which specifically states that purely private advisory groups are not subject to the requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.”

Georgia First Amendment Foundation disagrees with Atlanta Law Department

However, Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, disagrees with the city’s Law Department.

“I am sure you are not surprised that we disagree with Ms. Denius’ opinion. I do concede, however, it’s a tough question,” Manheimer said today.

“The Act has been amended since Atlanta Journal v. Hill to include public agency committees and we would cite to Jersawitz v. Fortson. In short, we would argue that the LGBT Advisory Board acts as a vehicle for the APD and the APD cannot hide behind this committee in order to shield itself from public oversight,” she added.

“Also, it’s clear that the open meetings act is supposed to be interpreted broadly, so even if there is a difference of opinion, the Georgia courts lean in favor of openness.”

Couvertier, who disagreed from the beginning with meeting in private with the mayor and police chief, asked for the city’s legal opinion on whether the board violated the Open Meetings Act. McDaniel also voiced her displeasure with the board meeting with the mayor and chief in private, saying the board was to be transparent with the mission of serving the public.

GA Voice asked for open meetings

In a July 25 letter to Freedman before the meetings with Reed and Turner were held, GA Voice Editor Laura Douglas-Brown asked the board to reconsider not allowing the media into the meetings with the mayor and police chief.

“First, the decision to close the meeting appears to be in direct conflict with the advisory board’s by-laws, which clearly state that meetings will be public.

“Second, closing this meeting goes against the spirit of the advisory board and why it was founded, and I believe will seriously erode the gay community’s trust in this board,” Douglas-Brown wrote in an email to Freedman, chair of the advisory board.

“The Advisory Board was founded to represent the community’s interests, not the police, and to attempt to rebuild trust between the two. Shutting out the media and the public would go against that spirit,” she added.

“The police department’s entire handling of the Eagle case has suffered from a lack of transparency and disclosure, from not informing the then-LGBT liaison that it was happening, to the former police chief and mayor taking far too long to speak out about the community outrage about it. The city furthered that perception by being uncooperative in providing information in the federal lawsuit, and even — as we now know from the recent investigations — police officers directly lying and covering up their actions,” Douglas-Brown stated.

“Closing this meeting will appear to the public as following in that pattern. I believe that the members of the LGBT Advisory Board are all good people and strong community advocates, but there is no reason not to let media and the public attend this meeting. Otherwise, there will always be the possibility that the community will perceive the advisory board as having been persuaded or influenced by the police department to accept their explanations and not be upset about the outcome of the investigations. Having media present allows for a third-person account of what happened, which benefits both sides,” Douglas-Brown explained.

“Secret meetings serve no one, and give the impression that the board is colluding with the police department even if that is not the case,” she wrote.

In fact, at Monday’s meeting, several of those attending questioned why the board met in private with the mayor and police chief and accused board members of being “puppets” for the mayor.

Law cases cited by city, First Amendment Foundation

The city’s Law Department states that Atlanta Journal v. Hill ensures that the advisory board does not meet the requirements of having to follow the Open Meetings Act. In this 1987 case that went to the state Supreme Court, the newspaper filed for injunctive relief seeking access to meetings of an advisory panel appointed by Mayor Andrew Young.

The panel of nine private citizens was formed by executive order in 1987 to “conduct a confidential review and evaluation of actions by City officials and employees following allegations concerning several prominent Atlantans which were filed with the Atlanta Bureau of Police Services on March 19, 1987.”

This case involved Alice Bond, former wife of civil rights icon Georgia state senator Julian Bond. Alice Bond told police she witnessed her husband use cocaine. Julian Bond denied the allegations and Alice Bond recanted her accusations. But she told police she had a list of many prominent city officials she said saw use cocaine; the list was leaked to the public and press.

And although there was no proof, Mayor Young called a press conference to deny he used cocaine and then appointed a panel to investigate the allegations. When the newspaper tried to attend the meetings, it was denied and the state Supreme Court ruled that the panel did not meet the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.

However, in 1994, the Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s ruling in Jersawitz v. Fortson. A suit was filed alleging the Atlanta Housing Authority’s Olympic Task Force Selection Committee violated the Open Meetings Act and the trial court ruled the committee was an advisory committee and did not fall under the Open Meetings Act.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision by stating the committee “acted as a vehicle for AHA to carry out its responsibilities to review the proposals submitted to the agency, and because of the responsibility assumed by this committee with the knowledge and full acquiescence of the agency, the agency cannot hide behind the committee and assert that its governing body did not create it.”

City being sued over Open Meetings Act

Matthew Cardinale, editor of Atlanta Progressive News, currently has two lawsuits against the city of Atlanta alleging the city council has held illegal closed door committee meetings.

Cardinale is representing himself and alleges the council has held numerous committee meetings behind closed doors. In a recent court hearing, Cardinale was able to win a victory against the city when the city’s Law Department attempted to suppress APN’s publication of confidential memos to city council members about the Open Meetings Act.

The memos can be read in full at Peach Pundit.

Cardinale reported on his website Thursday that he planned to include in his complaints against the city the alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act by the LGBT Advisory Board.