While they can still meet in executive session to discuss hirings, firings and contract extensions, Olens said House Bill 397, which changes the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws, encourages local governments to review employee performance in open session.
“Basic discussions of ‘Are we happy with Joe?’ I would say that’s gray, and not a good area to go into executive session for,” Olens said after the 1½-hour discussion at Cobb County’s administration building.
Instead, Olens said closed sessions should be reserved for more paramount issues.
“Routine discussions, I would say, are not appropriate,” he said.
The meeting included more than 70 elected and appointed officials representing different divisions of county government, as well as all most of Cobb’s six cities and the Cobb County and Marietta school districts.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin said he was surprised to learn that City Council could no longer discuss board appointments in closed session.
“We’ve always considered them employees, so we could talk (in executive session) without breaching their privacy,” Tumlin said. “But if the law has got that restricted, then we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”
The law also requires that all votes be made in open session, including votes on real estate transactions, and mandates that minutes are taken of closed session meetings. If illegal action is alleged to have taken place in the closed session, Olens said the action can be challenged in court, and the judge would be allowed to review the minutes.
Olens said some wanted to require all executive sessions to be recorded on video and saved in case there is a challenge, but that would have been impractical in smaller, poorer communities across the state.
Olens reviewed other changes to the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records acts, which went into effect when Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill April 17.
The law increases maximum fines for violators to $1,000, or up to $2,500 for repeat violators within a year. Previously, maximum fines were $100 for an open records violation and $500 for an open meetings violation.
The new law also lowers the costs that people have to pay for records to 10 cents per page from 25 cents per page, while providing “teeth” for the attorney general to bring civil or criminal penalties against violators.
“If you destroy records, that’s a felony separate from the Open Records Act,” he said.
The law also allows for local government boards to meet by teleconference in emergency conditions or with a member who has a written excuse from a doctor. They can also meet by teleconference up to twice a year for non-emergency reasons, as long as a quorum is present in person.
Responding to a question from Powder Springs City Clerk Dawn Davis, Olens said it is OK for boards to go out of town together to view property that affects the entity they represent or to attend a conference. But if they plan to discuss business the board is considering, they have to send out an agenda.
“At the point where they’re going to discuss public business, you need to tell the press exactly how to be there,” he said. “Don’t put yourself in trouble. Don’t let the perception affect your credibility.”
Davis was still uncertain about what constitutes “public business.”
“Listening to someone else in a meeting is fine — you know, you go to Charlotte, they tell you what they’re doing,” Olens said. “At the point you want to talk about what you want to do, that’s a public meeting.”
Olens praised Tumlin for ending the Marietta City Council’s practice of meeting at the Marietta Diner after scheduled meetings, though Councilman Philip Goldstein pointed out that those meetings were agendized.
Olens emphasized that government bodies should have a single go-to person for open records requests, suggesting communications directors Robert Quigley of Cobb County and Jay Dillon with the Cobb School District handle the duties for those entities. But Olens said that if they are out of town, someone needs to check their email because the entity still only has three days to respond.
“There’s no excuse that the person was on vacation,” Olens said.
The new law also allows governments to withhold documents on pending economic development projects, defined as having a commitment by a company of more than $25 million or 50 employees, until the project secures a binding commitment or is terminated.
Olens hopes the new law will clarify a number of the gray areas his office deals with. In 2011, the AG’s office handled 400 complaints, up from 250 the year before, he said.
Smyrna City Councilman Ron Fennel praised Olens for taking the time to speak with officials and answer their questions.
“I think we need to know what the rules are so we can make all our department heads comply,” he said. “We want to be as open a government as we can be.”
Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said Olens’ efforts since taking office in January 2011 have been effective.
“We’ve always been very transparent, and I don’t see anything that changes drastically how we conduct business or how we conduct ourselves,” he said.
Cobb Chairman Tim Lee, who succeeded Olens as head of the Board of Commissioners, said the law cleared up some matters for the county, including prohibiting appointed boards from being allowed to meet in closed session. Last year, Cobb’s Citizen Oversight Committee was criticized for meeting in executive session.
“It has some changes in it that are very important to all the entities here today,” Lee said. “We felt that with a lot of new information, it would be helpful to get that information from the attorney general.”