An Open Records Request by The Nugget has resulted in the release of a list of candidates being considered to fill the Post 2 Dahlonega City Council position recently vacated by Helen Hardman.
That list consists of Joel Cordle, Stephen Ratzel, Stanley Lewis, Joe Henderson, William Bill Scott and Zack Tumlin.
The ultimate decision of who will receive the appointment will be voted on by council members at the January 19 meeting at city hall.
"We will install someone and get back to doing the city's business,” said Mayor Sam Norton.
Hardman stepped down last month in order to move out of the county to be closer to family.
Last Monday the list of self-nominated candidates for her replacement was discussed by council members in a questionable closed door session that David E. Hudson, General Counsel of the Georgia Press Association, said should have been open to all.
“It was illegal to exclude the public,” he said when contacted by The Nugget.
When these concerns were relayed to the city, officials agreed to release the list of candidates while stressing the importance for openness.
“We have worked very hard at being as open as possible,” said Norton.
He added that the opportunity for community feedback will be available at the January 19 special called meeting which will begin at 4 p.m.
OPEN RECORD RULES
The January 4 meeting in question went into closed-door executive session after Norton cited the discussion of “personnel.”
“We’re going to discuss personnel and the personnel were going to discuss is who’s going to be sitting hopefully down at that seat," said Norton while gesturing to the empty chair once occupied by Hardman.
Hudson said that, legally, the conversation should have taken place for all to see as he cited a section of Georgia Open Record code that deems “meetings about filling an agency vacancy to be open to the public.”
In response, Norton said the council was following the recommendation of City Attorney Doug Parks.
When contacted by The Nugget, Parks said he actually researched the matter prior to the meeting with Georgia Municipal Association attorney Read Gignilliat.
“I contacted the GMA helpline with regards to that to get clearance in advance,” he said.
Earlier this week Gignilliat provided an emailed response detailing the legal thinking behind the decision. In that response he pointed to the city’s policy, which prevents appointed council members from running for a consecutive term, as technically putting that would-be representative in the category of “personnel-esque.”
However, Gignilliat’s opinion closed with the acknowledgement that the issue falls into a perceived murky legal territory and suggested a change of course for future meetings.
“‘Gray areas’ tend to be resolved in favor of disclosure/openness,” he stated. “With this in mind, and in keeping with the City’s own commitment to transparency, Doug and I have had further discussions and are in agreement that it is best that the City err on the side of caution and forego invoking this exemption going forward.”
When presented with the argument from GMA, Hudson did not mince words.
“There was once a Broadway play where the politician sang and danced The Texas Two-Step,” he said. “The theme was dancing around an issue and not accepting responsibility. The Georgia Code section could not be clearer … At least the lawyer for GMA has counseled the city to obey going forward.”
All city council members were notified of the issue by email and given the chance to comment.
The lone on-the-record response came from council member JoAnne Taylor who said she felt the matter was handled fairly.
“I believe we were following the correct approach according to municipal guidelines,” she said.
The Nugget has filed an additional request for any records, paperwork or recordings of the January 4 closed-door discussion.