The budget for DeKalb Schools E-SPLOST projects is in trouble. DeKalb Schools Board of Education is having illegal, behind closed doors, meetings to discuss the E-SPLOST project budget assessment and hear new planning options. Potentially, all options are on the table including redistricting and cutting projects.
To: Members of Board of Education
From: Mr. Dan Drake, Interim Chief Operations Officer
This communications serves to confirm your availability for a mini-session for the purpose to discuss the increased cost estimate for E-SPLOST IV and E-SPLOST V and a few options for a plan of action to address the increased cost estimates.
Kindly, select the date and time that best accommodates your schedule to confirm your slot. Please be reminded that no more than 3 individuals per session to avoid a quorum. If your schedule cannot accommodate a face-to-face session, let us know and we will arrange for a webinar session.
• Tuesday, March 19, 10:30-12:00 p.m.
• Tuesday, March 19, 1:00-2:30 p.m.
• Wednesday, March 20, 1:30-3:00 p.m.
Richard Belcher with WSB ran a story Friday, State attorney general’s office criticizes DeKalb school board plan to hold secret meetings about spending. Belcher spoke with the President of the First Amendment Foundation who agreed that “this is a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
The Office of the Attorney General has weighed in. His office sent the school district this message earlier this week.
Open Meetings Complaints about the DeKalb County Board of Education
Georgia State Attorney General
I am writing to you to follow up on the discussions we had about the “mini-sessions” held by members of the DeKalb County Board of Education. Based on the information that has been forwarded to our office, these “mini-sessions” were held to allow board members to discuss E-SPLOST (and other school district business). Board members were told that no more than three board members should attend each session in order to “avoid a quorum.” I understand from our conversation that it is expected that the information discussed in the “mini-sessions” will be discussed again by the full board in a public meeting.
I acknowledge that the Open Meetings Act does exempt some types of gatherings of board members from the definition of a “meeting” and there are some curcumstances where board members could gather without the intention of evading or avoiding the requirements of the Act. However, that does not mean I condone the actions of the board in these circumstances, particularly as it relates to the specific statements that the intent is to avoid having a quorum present. The intent of the General Assembly in passing the Act is to provide strict requirements ensuring that the public’s business is conducted in an open and accessible manner. Not only does such a requirement permit the people to know what actions their public servants are undertaking, but it also fosters public confidence in their leaders and the decisions that they make. The failure to serve those underlyning purposes leads to mistrust and controversy. Stating that the “mini-session” are being scheduled in a way that “avoids a quorum” strongly suggests to the public that the sessions are being used for discussions or deliverations that the public would expect to be conducted in a public meeting.
The Act states, in its definitions of a meeting: “This subparagraph’s exclusions from the definition of the term ‘meeting’ shall not apply if it is shown that the primary purpose of the gathering or gatherings is to evade or avoid the requirements for conducting a meeting while discussing or conducting official business.” O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(a)(3). It is hard not to draw a conclusion that the sole purpose of the mini-sessions was intended to avoid compliance with the Act and holding these meetings in the open. If this is so, then no exception would apply in this case.
The Open Meetings Act is one of our public officials’ most valuable tools in communicating with and serving the people they represent. I am also mindful that the Act was not designed nor intended to prevent every every possible contact or conversation between two public officials outside of a formal meeting. There are certainly times when such communications may very well be appropriate. However, a public official is also a trustee of the people and must be judicious in the exercise of his or her privileges and authority. Matters that involve critical or deliberative processes on issues of public concern are best decided when they are open and available to public review. Taking steps to avoid having discussion of public business outside of a public meeting can only benefit the agency and the public it serves, in fulfillment of both the intent and spirit of the Act. It is therefore my sincere hope that the board will in the future carry out not only the letter of the law but adhere to the spirit of the law as well.
Although our office cannot provide legal advice to local governments, we are happy to discuss Open Government issues with public officials and citizens and to provide resources and information about the Acts. If you, the board, or district staff members have questions about how board members can meet with staff members while complying with the Open Meetings Act, please call our office.
Assistant Attorney General