by Robin Kemp
The Clayton Crescent’s legal team received a response October 21 to its demand letter that the City of Forest Park take steps to ensure the public has full access to City Council meetings. The University of Georgia Law First Amendment Clinic, which is representing The Clayton Crescent pro bono on the matter, had asked that the city respond by October 15.
In the response letter, City Attorney Mike Williams alleged that The Clayton Crescent’s reporter, Robin Kemp, “willfully endangered the City’s staff by sneaking [sic] into City facilities without authorization and without COVID-19 safety screening.”
As previously reported, Kemp announced that she was there to cover the council meeting, wore masks in compliance with signs posted on the front door to council chambers, and submitted to a Forest Park Police Department search of her bag. On three occasions, at the direction of Mayor Angelyne Butler, Forest Park Police removed Kemp from the meeting: September 21, October 5, and October 19.
The letter claims that “The City of Forest Park is fully committed to meeting its responsibilities to comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution and the Georgia Open Meetings Act.” The letter also claims, “We proudly report that the City has been able to both provide public access to meetings while also protecting staff and residents from further spread of this deadly virus. While the City’s efforts have not been perfect, in no way has the City violated the Constitution or the Open Meetings Act.”
The letter did not explain why city officials, including Mayor Angelyne Butler, City Manager Alfred Barker, Jr., Police Chief Nathaniel Clark, Councilmembers Hector Gutierrez, Allan Mears, Kimberly James, and Dabouze Antoine (see photos) have gone without masks during those meetings. It also does not explain why the city has, for several months, been unable to provide consistently audible or visible livestreams of City Council meetings in progress, nor why it has told citizens to file Open Records Requests for audio after the fact, nor why it has posted partial recordings, such as one that began after Kemp presented a formal verbal protest during the October 5 meeting. (After Kemp pointed out this fact in a public post, the city posted the full meeting video, including low audio of Kemp’s declaration but not including audio of her stating her name.)
In addition, none of the published minutes from the meetings during which the mayor ordered police to remove Kemp mentioned those removals or the formal verbal protest that the city was in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
City officials have made various claims when questioned about the lack of public access to council meetings. Butler has said that microphones in chambers were defective and would be replaced. Clark has said that the reason for the mayor ejecting The Clayton Crescent’s reporter was due to health guidelines. Captain James Delk has said that he was to deliver the message that there would be “no allowance to enter the council meeting.” Several times, the city’s representatives have claimed on social media that the livestream was down due to “technical difficulties.”
After The Clayton Crescent’s legal team issued a demand letter, the city began to produce more detailed minutes of those meetings, while referring readers to the city’s YouTube channel for whatever councilmembers said specifically.
Masks for thee, but not for me
It is The Clayton Crescent’s position that, by preventing The Clayton Crescent from covering the meetings in person, by repeatedly failing to make synchronous audio and/or video available to the public, by requiring citizens to submit preapproved public comments hours before the meeting (but, most recently, minutes after the agenda was posted) and by requiring citizens to wait to see and hear whatever city-made recordings may be available, the city is exercising a form of prior restraint that allows it to conduct business without timely public scrutiny.
As for the city’s claim that it is safeguarding the health of employees and other citizens of the city, one only need look at the recent series of city-sponsored festivals, tailgate parties, concerts, and food truck events–not to mention sporting events in which both spectators and child athletes come into close contact without masks–to see that the city is selectively enforcing the mayor’s emergency declaration only where serious matters are involved.
The company you keep
Those serious matters, at least some of which The Clayton Crescent has just barely been able to hear via poor-quality city audio or read about after the fact whenever the city chooses to publish minutes or post public notices, include:
- adoption of the city budget
- discussions about the city’s lack of a centralized procurement tracking system
- hiring the former deputy chief procurement officer of the City of Atlanta under the Kasim Reed administration, A. Girard Geeter, to handle contracts for Forest Park. Geeter was in charge of “the process of soliciting and issuing of contracts in support of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Watershed, Public Work(s), and Quality of Life Fund”. Reed’s former press secretary, Jenna Garland, was found guilty of violating the state’s Open Records Act in a landmark case decided in favor of WSB-TV and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Garland, who in 2017 had sent texts to Atlanta Watershed Management’s Lillian Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” in fulfilling WSB’s and AJC’s Open Records requests, to “drag this out as long as possible,” and to “provide the information in the most confusing format possible,” has filed an appeal. Geeter’s former colleague and Lake Spivey resident, Mitzi Bickers, who now works for her onetime political campaign client Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill as chief chaplain, is under federal indictment related to procurement for the City of Atlanta, as well as in Mississippi. Bickers has pleaded not guilty; the trial is ongoing but impacted by the COVID-19 judicial emergency.
- City Manager Alfred Barker, Jr.’s statement that, after going around to different departments to collect contracts that each had entered into, some of those contracts apparently “done went missing” and that “we had to terminate someone over the RFP process”
- City Councilman Allan Mears stating during a discussion of COVID-19 CARES Act grant money that the city had about “basically about eight days” to spend about a million dollars
- creating a new position for Clark as public safety director, apparently over both the police and fire/EMS departments
- publishing a job opening for police chief, which several sources say has been all but promised to former Clayton County Police Chief Greg Porter, who in 2013 faced racketeering charges in an alleged invoice-padding scheme (a grand jury in Fayette County refused to indict Porter)
- a current pricing request the city has issued for three 2021 Chevrolet Tahoes (“one white, one shadow grey, one black”), which retail for about $60,000 each
- a 4K video studio built for the mayor to host TV shows to dispel what she called “untruths” about the city, paid for with Downtown Development Authority funds
- an effort by Clayton County political kingmaker Kevin Thomas, according to Councilwoman Kimberly James, to recommend or secure a sanitizing contract with the city. Previously, Thomas had tried and failed to secure contracts with Clayton County municipalities–including Forest Park at $8,000 per month and Morrow at $42,000–to serve as a lobbyist at the Georgia Assembly.
Our position is that it appears the city is using its COVID-19 declaration as a fig leaf to cover business deals that it is doing outside full public scrutiny. And it is using rank-and-file law enforcement officers to do their bidding in contravention of state and federal law by putting them in the unenviable position of being ordered to eject a law-abiding journalist who is following mask and social distancing recommendations while engaged in newsgathering.
The irony that the city can, in under a month, secure funds, enter into a contract, have a studio built out in a community center for the mayor’s personal use, and hold a public event to show it off while also claiming it has both “proudly…been able to provide public access to meetings” and suffered a series of technical incompetencies and mishaps with plug-and-play technology that other municipalities, the county, the courts, the school system, and any citizens who want to have remote video conversations with one another are easily able to manage is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous.
The city’s disingenuous claim that it is attempting to protect public health fails to account for its inconsistent enforcement of the “city-wide” rule in Starr Park, Kiwanis Stadium, the Rec Center, and the Community Center. City officials themselves put everyone in chambers at risk by repeatedly removing their masks and sharing a microphone, and everyone at Starr Park at risk by removing masks for photos (including one with a citizen with breathing issues) or just for the heck of it.
If it quacks like a duck…
Let’s call a thing a thing: the city is engaging in a heavy PR campaign, including vanity video production using $18,785 for an apparently no-bid (as no notice turned up in the legals) contractor and about another $200 from a city department to upgrade the electrical for it (as opposed to paying a professional PR firm for video campaigns as needed or leasing gear that depreciates and is obsolete in a few years); free food giveaways supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not by the city officials taking credit for them; and festival after festival held on the city’s dime while city officials are doing business behind closed doors and flagrantly and repeatedly violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act and the First Amendment. To slow direct confirmation of such weighty matters, rather than simply being transparent, the city is arbitrarily using the Open Records Act’s copying fee provision to try and price out The Clayton Crescent’s requests for records that it already has the legal right to see. The citizens of Forest Park have a right to know what is going on, to question their elected officials, and to hold them accountable for their actions. Period.
This is especially the case when public funds are in play and the city is using its police force to shut out the press.
It is the news media’s job to serve as watchdogs of, not lapdogs to, the government. The Clayton Crescent reminds city officials that members of the media are considered essential workers and thus should be afforded access on behalf of the wider general public.
The Clayton Crescent has complete faith in its legal team and in the state Attorney General’s Office in this matter and will continue to advocate for transparency and full public access for the citizens of Forest Park, who have every right to know what their government is doing with their tax dollars, both before and during the fact; with whom they are doing it; and at what price.