City of Cumming, Georgia joins municipality-based attack on Freedom of Information rights

us-georgia [Last updated 03/02/14] In April, 2012 the city of Cumming, Georgia blocked a citizen journalist from videotaping open meetings; in Dec. 2013, nearly two years later, the matter was still under mediation. Open meetings around the USA are frequently not only videotaped, but aired on public access TV. Videotaping is a crucial part of freedom of information because it captures an objective, durable record.

If the city of Cumming were to prevail in its anti-freedom of information lawsuit, it would set the stage for all municipalities in Georgia to refuse public videotaping not only for city meetings, but for crucial election processes like poll closing and vote counting. Another municipality, Anchorage, Alaska, proposed just that in early 2014. 1 The Anchorage effort was defeated.

Vote-counting is required to be performed “in public meeting” in several states, notably New Hampshire and South Carolina, though neither state currently complies with this requirement. Upholding public right to videotape public meetings has broad implications of self-governance and public oversight.

What triggered the Cumming lawsuit is this:

The state of Georgia passed legislation in 2012 explicitly upholding citizen right to videotape public meetings. But when a Cumming citizen tried to videotape a meeting, the mayor and the police stopped her. The Georgia attorney general has stepped in to fight the city of Cumming.

Municipalities have been taking the lead to roll back sunshine laws; one reason for fighting transparency may be to protect the interests of developers.2 In a telling analysis of the for-profit development of California’s City of Industry, investigative reporter Victor Valle describes efforts to restrict public access to city government and records, as part of “crafting contracts and orchestrating votes that would protect its officials from conflict-of-interest prosecution for decades, for initiation land confiscations via eminent domain that would pave the way for redevelopment…” — all part of obstructing public right to inspect city council activities and budgets.

In Washington State, representatives from the Washington Association of Municipalities testified in 2012 legislative hearings against providing copies of public records, claiming undue burden.

The Wyoming Association of Municipalities attempts to roll back Freedom of Information rights every year; so far, assisted by diligent citizens and the Wyoming Press Association, they have been unsuccessful, but the attacks persist, because attorneys for the association are paid to accomplish this goal. 3

Public tax money is expended by public officials not just to carry out day to day tasks, but for expensive junkets to high priced hotels to attend association meetings for a host of quasi-governmental organizations. The national League of Municipalities, buttressed by state-level associations, is just one of many organizations exploiting public funds, hosting pricey trips for public officials to resorts and five-star hotels, all the while claiming these meetings are private. Though the organizations have public-sounding names they are funded by private corporations who ply public officials with free booze and talking points. Primarily, these organizations are lobbying entities. They examine public policy issues and provide advice, and coach public officials on what to say. They even draft suggested legislation and issue policy guidelines.

There’s nothing wrong with public officials getting together for ongoing education and training, but if the purpose was really training and education for public officials these meetings could just as easily be conducted online or through Skype, reducing vendor influence and saving taxpayer dollars.

The Cumming fight has broad implications. Here is the original article: Cumming challenges new sunshine laws 4

The city of Cumming is challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new sunshine laws in response to an open meetings suit by state Attorney General Sam Olens against its mayor. Olens’ suit, the first under the state’s new Open Meetings and Open Records acts, alleged that Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt and police officials barred Nydia Tisdale from videotaping a city council meeting. House Bill 397, which went into effect April 17 — the day of the alleged incident — provides for visual and sound recordings of public meetings and authorizes the attorney general to bring civil suits against violators.

The AG’s complaint cites two counts and asks the court to impose the maximum civil penalties allowed under the new laws, $1,000 for the first violation and $2,500 for each subsequent one. (Tisdale filed a separate civil rights suit in federal court in mid-June.) The city responded to the AG’s suit on July 19, arguing that Gravitt was presiding over the meeting in his official capacity and is protected under the Georgia Constitution’s sovereign immunity doctrine. The city contemporaneously filed a counterclaim for declaratory judgment.

“With respect to the sovereign immunity of the city of Cumming, the Georgia Constitution provides, in pertinent part: ‘(t)he sovereign immunity of the state and its departments and agencies can only be waived by an act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that sovereign immunity is thereby waived and the extent of such waiver,'” the city’s filing stated. “All of the enforcement provisions of House Bill 397 are silent with respect to the issue of sovereign immunity.”

Neither the city’s attorney, Dana Miles with Miles Patterson Hansford Tallant, nor Olens would comment Friday on the suit.

Here is a brief update on the status of this dispute: Former State Supreme Court Judge To Mediate Between Cumming Mayor, Attorney General, Citizen Journalist – Government 5

Self-described citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale says she and state Attorney General Sam Olens will undergo mediation with the city of Cumming over its alleged violations of state laws governing public meetings.

Mayor H. Ford Gravitt allegedly twice banned Tisdale from video recording a city council meeting in April 2012 and had her forcibly removed from the public gathering by police the same day Gov. Nathan Deal signed an updated version of the Georgia Sunshine Laws, according to Tisdale’s post. Two lawsuits resulted. Olens’ suit, above, asks that Gravitt, individually and in his capacity as mayor, be fined $1,000 for the April violation and $2,500 for any subsequent violation, and that the court award the Attorney General attorney’s fees and other litigation costs related to the action.

In response to Olens’ lawsuit, Cumming officials challenged the constitutionality of Georgia’s Sunshine Law and claimed Gravitt is protected under the state Constitution’s official immunity doctrine and the city is protected under the sovereign immunity doctrine.

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Concepts:

Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/election-transparency/

Freedom of Information (FOI laws) – allow public access to data held by government, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. Also called open records or sunshine laws. Governments are bound by a duty to publish and promote openness. Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country

  1. More on municipality of Anchorage attempting to block public access to videotaping: http://blackboxvoting.org/reports/s-ak-election-observation-concerns-about-potential-changes-for-anchorage/
  2. Victor Valle. City of Industry: Genealogies of Power in Southern California (pp. 94-95).
  3. More on this Wyoming municipalities attempt to reduce public right to know: http://blackboxvoting.org/reports/wyoming2014/
  4. Cumming challenges new sunshine laws: Daily Report, July 30, 2012. By Kathleen Baydala Joyner. Article originally appeared at: http://www.dailyreportonline.com/PubArticleDRO.jsp?id=1202564750940&Cumming_challenges_new_sunshine_laws&slreturn=20120630095055
  5. Todd Rehm: Report: Former State Supreme Court Judge To Mediate Between Cumming Mayor, Attorney General, Citizen Journalist – Government , Cumming, GA Patch, 12/12/2013, http://gapundit.com/2013/12/12/report-former-state-supreme-court-judge-to-mediate-between-cumming-mayor-attorney-general-citizen-journalist-government-cumming-ga-patch/

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