Don’t look now, but the specters of “secrecy and conspiracy” are permeating the story surrounding the eventual fate of Augusta’s beloved 64-acre nature preserve, Pendleton King Park.
If you keep up with these things, and virtually everyone reading this column locally does, you know that the city’s “dollar a year” lease of the property from the private trust that owns the property expires Dec. 31, and the prevailing wisdom is that the trustees in control of the park need to “cash out” in order to meet other ongoing financial responsibilities.
Several Augusta city commissioners apparently balked and publicly scoffed at the notion that the park was worth the $1.2 million reportedly sought by the trustees for an outright purchase by the city. Supposedly this conversation had been going on behind closed doors for as long as six months, and several “smug” politicians and bureaucrats thought they could force a much better deal out of the trustees, because they got what several of us believe was REALLY bad legal advice from city attorney Andrew McKenzie. Running out of time and patience, at least one of the Trustees started to court developers who could buy at least a portion of the park property to develop as high end residential real estate.
As soon as representatives of the Pendleton King Park Foundation, a peripheral nonprofit organization that serve as unofficial caretakers, fundraisers, and cheerleaders of the park, got wind of what was going on, and the city’s odd and ill advised game of “cat and mouse” on the fate of the property, the poop indeed hit the fan.
I am very proud of the fact that once Augustans discovered the “plight of the park,” and indeed what was at stake if city leaders didn’t get off their fannies and act, they rose up and LOUDLY let their concerns be heard.
At this writing, no specific game plan has been detailed, but because of the massive public outcry, the trustees again are reaching out to the city with a purchase offer, and this time, the politicians are listening and negotiating.
Of particular interest at this point, we have word that District Attorney Natalie Paine is concerned there have been some less “honorable” communications and exchanges between members of the Trust, and she is hoping to ensure that the trustees are not only following the intentions of their founding documents, but also are ethically and truthfully communicating with each other, and Augusta city leaders, in this process.
Of course all of the drama that accompanied this deal could have been avoided if both the trustees and the city had been transparent and publicly vocal in their plans. Both sides claimed the right to “secrecy” because it was a “real estate deal” under negotiation, but there is no obligation to close any such matter to the public, under any circumstances. In this case, the politicians need to know public sentiment, and the trustees had nothing to lose, and in fact everything to gain, by making this process as public as possible.
Closed meetings, unlike their “open” counterparts, are never recorded. As such, there is no official record of exactly what is said, who said it, or what happens once those doors are closed.
I recently spoke with local attorney and renowned legal scholar David Hudson on this very topic. Hudson is the “go-to” man on this issue, not just because he has worked for both the <<IT>>Augusta Chronicle<<IT>> and the Georgia Press Association, but because he is in fact the author of the state law in question.
While Hudson agrees that discussing real estate acquisition and sales could justify closing a public meeting, he agrees that having to trust the very body that may in fact break that law, to police themselves and report violations, is folly.
Which brings me to the more recent obvious failure of local officials in keeping public business as transparent as possible, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority’s misstep last week. The Georgia State Attorney General’s office, acting on a complaint from a citizen, has opened a formal inquiry into Authority attorney Ed Enoch’s advice that OK’d the Authority to close a meeting concerning the acquisition of the old Regency Mall property for construction of a new civic arena. The error was made by the invitation to four Augusta City Commissioners that they join the closed door session. As Hudson was happy to explain to reporters who asked after the fact, that is a major no-no, and Enoch was wrong to say otherwise. This is not the first time Enoch has given questionable advice, and it certainly is not the first time he has failed when it comes to the Open Meetings Law.
As much as I would hope there would be Authority members who would know when Enoch was wrong (after all, he is an attorney, and they are NOT), it boggles the mind to consider what level of foolishness, and disregard for the law, could be playing out under his misguided advice.
It is of particular concern if you have members of the Authority who intend to operate unethically. There is no one else in the room, so if the officials involved want to stick to the agenda, or plot the plunder the accounts of the Authority under the guise of a “closed meeting,” who the heck could stop them?
If one or two dissenting members raise objection to the discussion, they can easily be marginalized or belittled by the voting majority. This used to happen much and often in the old days of the Coliseum Authority (prior to 1997), and was one of the main reasons then City Commissioner Jerry Brigham named me to that body. During my tenure I objected about a half dozen times when the conversations during these closed meetings went into illegal territory, and there was rarely disagreement from our attorney of record.
Given the fact that we have MANY political boards and authorities that operate under the Open Meetings Law, and so little real understanding of exactly what should and should not be discussed behind closed doors, I say it is time to give the TRUTH a little muscle, and Hudson agrees.
I have proposed in the past, and I reassert with the weight of Hudson’s expertise and knowledge endorsing the concept, that we immediately amend the law to require audio recordings of all closed proceedings. These recordings will be kept in the possession of the attorney of record, and if the legitimacy of the session is questioned in any way, the record could be reviewed by an impartial Superior Court Judge, who then would determine if the law was followed.
I would add that in the case of real estate discussions, that recordings of ALL the closed meetings be released once the purchases are complete (either buying or selling), or the issue has been resolved to conclusion.
There are legitimate reasons to never release such recordings, such as employment reviews involving confidential information and the like, but many such meetings could easily be shared with the public after a certain period of time has elapsed.
Our local state legislative delegation could easily pow-wow on this issue, and with Hudson in their own backyard, I guarantee he would be happy to supply the technical language needed to give the current law more heft.
There is no logical reason in the world to wait, or ignore this problem, which from what I hear, is rampant from Georgia’s mountains to its seashores.
Municipal bodies of all size and function are accused of abusing the closed meeting privilege, and unless we provide watchdogs and the conscientious elected officials who raise their voices to complain with a solid solution, there will never be any real way to curb the inappropriate behavior.
Anything less clouds what should be sunshine for all.