The Ga. Supreme Court ruled 4-3 today that the Atlanta City Council violated the state's Open Meetings Act when it refused to disclose how individual council members voted on a rule to amend the amount of public comment time at committee meetings.
Matthew Cardinale, who is openly gay and founder and editor of Atlanta Progressive News, represented himself in the case before the high court. Representing the city were city attorneys Cathy Hampton, Amber Robinson and Kristin Denius.
Cardinale argued his case before the Georgia Supreme Court on Oct. 4. You can view video of the oral arguments by Cardinale and the city by clicking here.
The case stems from a public meeting retreat the council had at the Georgia Aquarium in 2010 when council members voted on whether to amend rules regarding the amount of time the public can speak during committee meetings. According to documents, the council vote was 8-7 to keep the public comment time as it is. However, the minutes of the meeting did not show who voted how and Cardinale asked the city for a list of how each council member voted.
Ga. Supreme Court rules for gay journalist who sued Atlanta over open meetings
“When he was unable to get the vote’s breakdown, Cardinale filed a ‘pro se’ complaint (he’s representing himself) in Fulton County Superior Court, claiming that under the Georgia Open Meetings Act, he had a right to the information. At issue in this case is the wording in the Act, which states: ‘In the case of a roll-call vote, the name of each person voting for or against a proposal shall be recorded, and in all other cases, it shall be presumed that the action taken was approved by each person in attendance unless the minutes reflect the name of the persons voting against the proposal or abstaining,'” states a release from the state Supreme Court.
The city filed a motion to dismiss Cardinale’s complaint and the dismissal was granted. Cardinale then appealed that ruling to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s ruling to dismiss.
Cardinale, who has been known to rap his distaste for City Council actions at public meetings (including on the public comment period), then went to the state’s High Court and argued his case pro se. And won.
“In today’s opinion, the majority disagrees [with previous lower court rulings]. The Open Meetings Act ‘was enacted in the public interest to protect the public – both individuals and the public generally – from ‘closed door’ politics and the potential abuse of individuals and the misuse of power,” the majority states. To decline listing the names of how people voted conflicts with the Act’s goal of greater transparency,” the majority noted.
The majority ruling goes on to state, “While the Act provides for public access to agency meetings, it also fosters openness by, among other things, requiring agencies to generate meeting minutes that are open to public inspection so that members of the public unable to attend a meeting nonetheless may learn what occurred” and also states, “In the case of a non-roll-call vote, the minutes must list the names of those voting against a proposal or abstaining. If no such names are listed, the public may correctly presume that the vote was unanimous.”
“We cannot conclude that the General Assembly intended to require members of the public to presume, incorrectly, that a non-unanimous, non-roll-call vote was, in fact, unanimous…even if some members of the public know from attending the meeting…that the vote was split,” Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote for the majority.
Joining Hunstein in the majority ruling were Justices Hugh Thompson, P. Harris Hines and David Nahmias.
Dissenting against the ruling were Justice Harold Melton, Presiding Justice George Carley and Justice Robert Benham.