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Oconee school board violates state Open Meetings Act law

The Oconee Board of Education on Tuesday asked a citizen and a reporter to leave a portion of a public meeting as defined by Georgia code, thus violating Georgia’s Open Meeting Act, also known as the state’s Sunshine laws.

Following Oconee County Schools’ announcement that it would not video record the annual BOE retreat on Jan. 16, retired Journalism Professor Lee Becker asked a representative of The Oconee Enterprise to record the day-long public meeting.

Becker, who manages a journalistic blog covering local government, could not attend the retreat. The Enterprise routinely republishes—though often with edits and sometimes with additions—select stories from Becker’s blog.

The Enterprise’s reporter who handled Becker’s camera will write several stories about the meeting for the paper’s Jan. 25 issue.

The video footage of the meeting will also be used as a tool for The Enterprise’s reporter to review statements and data presented at the school board retreat.

In the morning of the retreat, Oconee County Schools Communications Director Steven Colquitt asked The Enterprise reporter to turn off the camera during breaks and during lunch. After consulting with the editor of the paper, the reporter declined the request, stating that an audio or video recording can be made of a quorum of a governing agency, regardless of whether members of the agency are conducting official business.

At lunch, Colquitt told the reporter and another citizen in attendance that the board was going into executive session from noon until 12:45 p.m. and that citizens must leave the room. The Enterprise reporter was asked to remove the camera as well. No reason for the executive session was given, and the board did not take an official vote.

“The break was announced multiple times during the morning portion of the special session, so each person knew we would be clearing the room to eat,” BOE Chair Kim Argo told The Enterprise later that day.

“It was a scheduled lunch break that we announced a couple of times,” Colquitt explained to The Enterprise. “No official business was conducted.”

Colquitt clarified that he misspoke when he referred to the break as an “executive session.”

Regardless, according to state law, when a meeting of a governing agency is closed to the public, the specific reasons for such closure shall be entered into the official minutes, and members of the agency must vote and approve a closure.

The reason for a closed, or “executive,” session must align with an exception to Georgia’s Open Meetings Act statute. Those include personnel matters, attorney-client discussion of actual or potential litigation and real estate.

David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, confirmed that meeting in closed session–whether official business is discussed or not–requires a majority vote of a quorum.

“A retreat lunch is no exception,” Hudson said.

“Public officials may not exclude the public from workshops, fact-finding and purely deliberative sessions simply because no final action is taken or anticipated,” according to A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government, a publication by the Office of the Georgia Attorney General in cooperation with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Georgia Press Association “The public must be given full access to all open meetings and may make video and audio recordings of all open meetings.”

Anyone who “knowingly and willfully” conducts or participates in a meeting without complying with every part of the law is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not in excess of $1,000, according to A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government. “Alternatively, a court may impose a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.”

Additionally, public officials who participate in closed meetings in violation of the law can be subject to recall.

1 Comment

  1. Margaret Holt on January 27, 2024 at 12:31 pm

    I do not understand the resistance to sunshine?

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