by Robin Kemp

The City of Forest Park has released an audio recording of the Sept. 21 City Council meeting, during which The Clayton Crescent was escorted out the open meeting by Police Chief Nathaniel Clark, who said he did so at the request of Mayor Angelyne Butler.

The Clayton Crescent is considering legal action against the City of Forest Park under the Georgia Open Meetings Act and will update with details.

The audio was released three days after the meeting through a YouTube post, which claimed no video was available due to “technical difficulties.” The city has invoked “technical difficulties” or microphone issues for multiple instances of inaudible proceedings, votes not declared for the public to hear, and other issues.

Mid-meeting, city staffers can be heard discussing the video feed having gone down and whispering, “We need a new system.”

The city’s YouTube page includes this disclaimer:

“Due to technical difficulties during this meeting, the visual is not available for stream. However, the clear audio file is available for your streaming pleasure. Audio for any public meeting can always be requested through an Open Records Request, according to OCGA 50-18-70. The City of Forest Park holds their City Council meetings on the 1st and 3rd Monday of the month at 6:00 p.m. Currently, the public cannot physically attend meetings due to our compliance with social distancing guidelines. Meetings are streamed live via Zoom.”

However, the city did not remove other members of the public who, like The Clayton Crescent’s reporter, were observing social distancing guidelines and wearing face masks during the open meeting. Only The Clayton Crescent’s reporter, Robin Kemp, was removed from the meeting and the mayor’s request, not social distancing, was cited as the reason. Members of the public conducting business with the council were not required to do so via teleconference as a safety measure.

In addition, it is common practice to allow journalists to enter restricted spaces, such as crime scenes, that the general public cannot enter for safety reasons, specifically for the purpose of covering news.

Here is a link to the YouTube stream released the afternoon of Sept. 24:

The city had advertised the meeting as “open to the public.” This spring, the city closed all facilities and parks until further notice, Over the summer, it has opened the Recreation Center to at least one event where social distancing was not observed, reopened Starr Park, and reopened Kiwanis Stadium to football games. However, City Hall and council chambers remain closed to the public.

Other cities, including Morrow and Jonesboro, as well as the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, reopened their chambers for the public to attend open meetings of those governing bodies.

Under the Georgia Open Meetings Act, (2012-10-50-14-6), “Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000.00. Alternatively, a civil penalty may be imposed by the court in any civil action brought pursuant to this chapter against any person who negligently violates the terms of this chapter in an amount not to exceed $1,000.00 for the first violation. A civil penalty or criminal fine not to exceed $2,500.00 per violation may be imposed for each additional violation that the violator commits within a 12 month period from the date that the first penalty or fine was imposed. It shall be a defense to any criminal action under this Code section that a person has acted in good faith in his or her actions.”

The meeting involved a vote on whether to hire an outside consultant to do an audit of all city departments. Councilman Dabouze Antoine, who came outside at one point that night and spoke with The Clayton Crescent, said the council voted to pass the measure.

Councilwoman Kimberly James pressed the city manager for details about unspecified reports and the mayor and council held an elliptical discussion about a “task force.” However, the specifics were not made clear.

During a previous meeting, the council had discussed the need to spend about $1 million in COVID-19-related grant funding.

A contractor for Mauldin and Jenkins, ostensibly David Roberts (who was listed as presenter on the agenda), said the city will begin a financial compliance audit in October. The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request for results of any audits the company has done for the city since 2018.

Councilman Hector Gutierrez said he was not comfortable voting on the proposal that night. Three undisclosed options were presented, all of which another contractor promised to complete within 90 days.

“I’m a firm believer in transparency and accountability, so we would be providing status reports every two weeks to the project sponsor, if the city desires,” as well as a draft report at Day 75 for city officials to review before release.

Councilman Allan Mears said, “We’ve been audited, audited, audited, audited in the last six months. What is the shelf life of this? Is it yearly, quarterly? How often should this take place?”

The contractor responded that every ten years is normal, “or if you have a significant change in leadership.” He also recommended the city appoint one contact person, “high up in the organization.”

City manager Alfred Barker recommended the deputy city manager, adding, “I say we need to move forward today.” He added that, after speaking with Finance Director Ken Thompson and Chief Clark, “I recommend number three.”

James is holding her monthly Ward 1 Neighborhood Meeting during a Zoom meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24. Anyone can attend by entering meeting ID 830 8346 5760 and password jamesward1, or via phone at (301) 715-8592 using meeting ID 830 8346 5760 and password 8504719671.

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