At the MRC’s first meeting since it formally separated from the control of the Marietta City Council, MRC Chairman Ron Francis said its meetings are no longer open to the public.
“We have nothing to hide, but we may have to ask you to leave later,” Francis told an MDJ reporter who attended the June 25 meeting.
Francis, who is also the chairman of First Landmark Bank where the meeting was held, allowed the reporter to sit in on the first part of the MRC’s meeting during a discussion about its budget.
But when the group began to have a general discussion about the real estate market, he asked the reporter to leave.
MRC board member Ray Buday has said the MRC chose to strike references to Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts from the group’s bylaws when it separated from the city because he believed they didn’t need to be written down to be followed.
“We took out the references to open meetings,” Buday said at the meeting June 25. “They don’t belong in the bylaws, whether we’re subject to them or not. The bylaws are for bylaws, not for what other laws apply to us.”
Yet Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said a public corporation can’t choose to become private and reject open meeting laws.
“You can’t just make something that was clearly a public agency a private one,” Manheimer said.
Because the MRC still has the same mission as when it was controlled by the city, Manheimer said it should still be considered a public entity, which would be subject to open meeting laws.
“What was the change? (The MRC) is still doing that, and that’s its mission, then it’s still serving a public function,” Manheimer said.
Members of the MRC said city attorney Doug Haynie approved the group be closed to the public, but Haynie contradicted the
“I have not rendered that opinion,” Haynie said.
Haynie would not comment any further because the MRC is not under the city’s jurisdiction anymore, he said.
David Hudson, the attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said another factor that could make the group subject to Open Meetings laws is the source of its funding.
“If the Marietta Redevelopment Corporation is a private entity, as opposed to a government authority, it will be subject to the Open Meetings and Records laws only if it receives one-third or more of its funding from state and local tax revenues,” Hudson said.
The MRC is in debt, and some of the debt comes from public money it was given by the city. But now that the city’s money is the MRC’s debt, Hudson said it would not count as funding from the city’s revenues.
“Loans from state or local governments would not meet that qualification,” Hudson said.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin said the MRC should not move too fast to become independent because of its debt.
“Cumulatively over the years, they have a lot of money from the city of Marietta,” Tumlin said.
The city remains financially tied to the MRC from a loan it gave the group; the MRC owes the city $2.1 million.
This money was given to the MRC to help it secure a $4.2 million loan. The loan, from the Bank of North Georgia, was put to use to buy eight acres of property on Powder Springs Street, across from the Hilton Marietta Conference Center.
The MRC still owes the bank $3.9 million. On top of that, it promised to pay the city its $2.1 million back.
Tumlin said he plans to ask the council at its next meeting to allow city employees to continue assisting the MRC with administrative work.
“I’m going to put on the agenda that we still give city support, help them collect rent and keep track of the financials,” Tumlin said. “It might go from zero back up to 50/50.”
The mayor said he didn’t think the MRC could survive on its own.
“If we were to cut them completely out, then they would have nothing, and then the (MRC’s) loan would default and none of us want that,” Tumlin said.