by Robin Kemp
The University of Georgia Law First Amendment Clinic has asked the Georgia Attorney General’s office to resolve The Clayton Crescent’s complaint that the City of Forest Park violated the state’s Open Meetings Act on at least two occasions.
The letter also states that the city failed to provide the public with a reliable livestream of government proceedings since the COVID-19 pandemic began, effectively denying the public access to those meetings, as well.
The clinic sent a letter detailing the violations, along with several supporting exhibits, to the state on Tuesday, October 13.
Read the documents
The letter includes a detailed timeline of occasions on which the city failed to provide a clear audio livestream of council meetings:
- April 6
- April 20
- May 4
- May 18
- June 1
- June 8
- June 15
- July 6
- July 20
- August 3
- August 17
According to the letter, “The audio quality of the remote access provided to these meetings have been poor. Slideshows by people making presentations to the City Council are not always visible. And viewers get a static, one-angle view of the Council that only sometimes includes the podium from which speakers address the Council….Public comment at City Council meetings has also significantly declined to be almost nonexistent since public access was relegated to remote only.”
After ejecting Kemp from the first meeting, the city held an open house to show off a new TV studio the Downtown Development Authority paid to build for Butler to host her own shows in the Hartsfield Community Center. Butler told Kemp the studio was for countering what she called “untruths” about the city and that the new 4K video cameras would not be used to livestream council meetings. Records The Clayton Crescent obtained from the city under the Open Records Act show Forest Park paid nearly $19,000 for the studio.
The letter also reiterates that Kemp was singled out for removal from the open meetings of September 21 and October 5.
“To be sure, Ms. Kemp’s reporting has been persistent and critical of the City of Forest Park, and of Mayor Butler in particular,” the letter read. “This makes all the more troubling that the Mayor has excluded Ms. Kemp from two public meetings. Not only do these actions contravene the OMA–which exists to insure government transparency and to protect citizens who seek to hold public officials accountable–but these actions raise a concern that the City is unconstitutionally retaliating against Ms. Kemp by excluding her from public meetings because of the content and perspective of her news reporting.”
As an independent news agency, it is the editorial position and stated mission of The Clayton Crescent to hold elected officials accountable to the public.
We filed a complaint with the Attorney General after a journalist was illegally ejected from a public City Council meeting in violation of GA’s Open Meetings Act—twice. Local govt cannot exclude individuals from public meetings based on their critical reporting under the 1st Am. https://t.co/e8B6GNLvzH
— UGA Law's First Amendment Clinic (@UGA1stAmClinic) October 13, 2020
The letter also notes that, while the city claimed that its regular council meetings were closed to the public, ostensibly due to COVID-19 “guidelines,” the city has reopened its recreational facilities to the public. Recently, the city has installed new signs around town recommending that residents wear masks.
The Clayton Crescent has demanded that the city:
- restore the public’s physical access to government meetings while observing “reasonable social-distancing and mask/hand hygiene precautions”
- if following social-distancing requirements that limit how many people can attend meetings in person, provide a professional videographer to run the livestream so that the public can see and hear what goes on
- reserve two seats for the press and set up a neutral system “to determine who else from the public attends in-person, with this neutral system announced in the advance public notice that the OMA [Open Meetings Act] requires be posted for the meeting”
- all votes of mayor and council “taken orally by roll call with the outcome of the vote audibly announced immediately after voting is concluded so that both those attending in-person and those accessing the meeting remotely will know what was voted on, by whom, and the result”
- “Forest Park will not bar Ms. Kemp or other members of the press from attending public meetings of any body, board, or agency where in-person attendance by members of the public is permitted”
- “Forest Park will otherwise comply with all requirements of the Open Meetings Act.”
The Clayton Crescent’s legal team has asked the city to respond by Thursday, October 15. The next regular council meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 19.