Goldstein questions legality of exchanges
by Hilary Butschek
August 30, 2014 04:00 AM | 2903 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Councilman Philip Goldstein, concerned about the legality of his colleagues exchanging emails about city business, directed city attorney Doug Haynie this week to give a presentation on the state’s “sunshine laws.”

Official meetings must be publicized, open to the public and must include a quorum, or majority, of the members at the meeting.

When the rest of the group is present, the meeting is open to the public, Haynie said.

Goldstein played coy when asked by the MDJ what spurred his request.

“I asked for it just so that everybody understood what the rules were,” he said.

But during Wednesday’s discussion, Goldstein mentioned council members had been exchanging emails, and he was hesitant to respond to because he didn’t want to violate the law.

Haynie said the law allows council members to exchange emails with any number of council members about city business.

“You all can email each other without it violating the Georgia Open Meetings (Act),” Haynie said.

Haynie said council members are allowed to speak to each other over email without a quorum present because emails are open records and can be requested.

Goldstein said he was unfamiliar with that part of the law.

“Apparently, the law was changed in the last few years and it specifically allows for discussion on emails, which I was unfamiliar with,” Goldstein said. “It was a strong loosening of the open meetings when that was changed.”

Goldstein said at the meeting he has been on the receiving end of email chains from other council members.

“Once it’s out of committee, then it’s passed onto council, then it’s the quorum of council that counts, not the committee,” Goldstein said. “That’s one reason I have not responded to general blast emails.”

Other members of the council said they don’t exchange emails about city business very often.

Councilman Grif Chalfant said he supports open records and meetings laws, so he saves conversations about the city for the meetings.

“I think you’d be surprised how little is exchanged between council members, either by telephone or email,” Chalfant said.

Chalfant looked through his old emails and saw only two in the past week: one was an announcement from Councilman Stuart Fleming saying he would be absent from the Wednesday meeting and one was an update that the city went through with a purchase of a property on Allgood Road approved by the council in July.

“I think any emails should be open (records),” Chalfant said.

Chalfant said he doesn’t use email to talk with other council members.

“I wait until the meeting to talk about everything,” Chalfant said.

Councilman Johnny Walker said the same.

“I very rarely use emails to communicate with councilmen,” Walker said. “My conversation with other councilmen is at the meetings.”

When emails are exchanged, Chalfant said, they are announcements about meetings or suggestions for items to talk about at future meetings. For instance, Walker said he sent an email to council members in June to show them photos of a new style of dumpster that could replace those downtown.

“I was just trying to show some ideas, and I very rarely do that,” Walker said. “I don’t typically talk about issues unless I have a quorum.”

The law is different when it comes to talking about the same issues over the phone.

“If you pick up the phone and talk about official business ... with another member of a three-person committee, then that could violate the code,” Haynie said.

Haynie said all members would need to talk about the issue together, which would constitute an open public meeting.

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