Decatur officials giving retreat more notice

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt November 20, 2013

Icon_GovernmentSo yesterday I climbed onto my high horse to passively scold our city officials.

I was concerned about an upcoming joint-retreat between city commissioners and school board members. The retreat will be this Friday, Nov. 22 and it begins at 8 a.m.

I said the city hadn’t advertised the meeting well, and that its distant venue in Mansfield, Ga. was inconvenient for interested parties (including myself) who would like to attend.

Shortly after my post ran, I got a corrected meeting notice from City Manager Peggy Merriss, stating that the meeting will be held at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center is 543 Elliott Trail, not 54 Elliott Trail. The city also posted notice of the meeting on its website.

I’d like to thank the city for being responsive to the concerns I raised yesterday. There are a few concerns that haven’t been addressed, however.

I didn’t get any indication that the city would record the meeting for people who can’t attend. I realize that there are logistical challenges to recording a meeting that begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. There are logistical challenges to driving to Mansfield, Ga. on a Friday, too.

I’m glad the agenda is posted on the website, but it’s too vague. Adding some information would at least help people decide whether it’s worth the trouble of attending.

Overall, it’s a good response and made in good faith. I dig it.

I’d like to briefly address a couple of readers who left comments about my initial article. I understand that there are a lot of nits to pick in this world, and a boring retreat between city and school officials hardly seems worth a mention. Besides, the commenters said, wouldn’t the school board and commissioners benefit from a little privacy?

I try to be responsive to my readers, but on this point I simply cannot disagree more. The people attending this retreat are elected officials. If they don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues in public, they are in the wrong line of work.

There are legal justifications for closed-door meetings, called executive sessions under the state’s Open Meetings Act. This retreat must be an open meeting, with proper notice given. The retreat meets the bare minimum legal requirements to be in compliance with OMA, but I expect better.

I suppose it would be more diplomatic for me to give the city a pass. The city upheld the letter of this law, if not the spirit of OMA. But when I think about ignoring the little things, it makes me wonder what else I’m willing to ignore?

Decatur’s government works pretty well for the most part. The city itself is proof of that. I just want to help keep it that way, is all.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Steve

    You’re nitpicking.

  • Keith

    Trouble getting to Mansfield? Its in Newton County which is Metro Atlanta. That does not seem to be a valid issue.

    • It’s 48 miles away and is about an hour’s drive, assuming every interested party has access to a car. It also costs taxpayer money to rent the facility and cater the meals. I disagree that access isn’t an issue. This meeting is only convenient for people who can take off work for a day and drive an hour away to attend it. You might fit into that category, but there are many other people who don’t. Seeing as the city represents everyone, I think it would be better if the meeting’s time and location were convenient for the whole city and not the minority of residents who have the time, interest and resources to attend. It would be cheaper, too.

      • Steve

        It’s a retreat ! It’s supposed to be away from distracting issues. Like I said, you making a big deal out of an ordinary event.

  • John Kane

    If someone asks the COD or CSD for an agenda, my recollection is that OCGA 50-14-2(a) requires one be provided. My take is that “session” falls a bit short as far as describing the matters expected to be discussed, so maybe someone should ask.

  • Steve, I think you and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. I don’t consider writing an article about a poorly-advertised public meeting to be a “big deal” – it’s part of what journalists are supposed to do (and don’t do often enough, frankly). I’m not sure what distracting issues you’re referring to. The people who attend aren’t distractions, they’re constituents. Whatever needs to be said at that meeting can be said just as easily down at city hall or some other location that’s more convenient for residents who live here. John, the state did update the OMA in 2012. I am not an attorney, so I don’t know where this meeting falls in terms of how descriptive an agenda should be. IN GENERAL an agenda should provide substantive information. The code says an agenda should include “(2)(A) A summary of the subjects acted on and those members present at a meeting.” I don’t think “session” and “lunch” are helpful summaries. I imagine it gets down to what the meaning of “acted” is, under the code. (Here’s the revised code section: Please also note this language at the bottom of the city of Decatur’s meeting notice: “Consistent with requirements of O.C.G.A. §50-14-1.(e)(1)a draft agenda was posted on Thursday, November 14, 2013. A final agenda will be posted by 5:00pm on Wednesday, November 0, 2013.” Not sure what day Nov. 0 is, but in any case I didn’t find a final agenda. It’s clear from the notice that the city feels the meeting is subject to OMA requirements. They’ve done everything by the letter of the law, as best I can tell. But there’s the letter of the law and then there’s the intent of the law. The letter sets the minimum requirements. The intent or spirit is why the law was crafted in the first place: to make government accessible and accountable to its citizens. You can meet the letter of the law and still not keep with the spirit of it. That’s my opinion, but I appreciate you both challenging me to defend it.

    • John Kane

      I agree Dan – wasn’t meant to be a challenge at all. I think you’re being generous in your assessment that the timing, content and manner of the purported notice meets the letter of the law, but you may be right.

      Because the meeting is not a regularly scheduled meeting, a request may be required to trigger some of the disclosure requirements, but I’m not sure. If the retreat falls under one of the OMA’s exemptions (there are a few – meetings to discuss real estate sales/acquisitions, settling legal actions, etc.), maybe the notice suffices, but there’s no indication the retreat is exempt from the OMA.

      I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I wish you didn’t have to spend time on this, but I’m glad you did. Thanks for your work, and I plan to contribute to your endeavor.

  • Scott McFarland

    Just wanted to say “thanks” for the effort here. I am sure the Decatur government means well, but it never hurts to make sure they know people are watching and care. It’s all about keeping honest people honest.

  • Good job, Dan. When they continue to ignore the little things, the temptation builds to start ignoring the bigger things as well.

  • John: It’s all good. I appreciate your interest. 🙂
    To Atlanta Unfiltered and Scott: Thank you both very much.

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