City quietly dropped Zoom info, gave no reason for change

by Robin Kemp

UPDATE 3:12 p.m.: ADDS city link to homepage slider messages

UPDATE 10::25 a.m. June 17: ADDS screen grab of last meeting livestream date, June 7

One year ago, the inability of the public to see and hear Forest Park’s elected and appointed officials as they discussed the budget during the COVID-19 emergency prompted The Clayton Crescent to try and cover the meetings in person.

Tonight [June 16], the City of Forest Park did not run its livestream during the public hearing for the proposed FY2022 budget.

And leading up to the meeting, the city quietly removed its Zoom link information without pointing it out to the public, which had used the livestream in recent months, even after the city reopened its doors for in-person attendance at meetings.

The city voted in December 2020, after months of negotiations with the University of Georgia Law First Amendment Clinic on behalf of The Clayton Crescent, to upgrade the city’s livestreaming capabilities. At the time, the city’s appointed boards asked to use the system in chambers and agreed to split the cost.

Change of plan

The published agenda did not include any special notice (as it has for closures to the public and COVID-19 requirements) that the city would not supply its citizens with remote access to perhaps the most important meeting each year–the one that lays out how the city plans to spend its citizens’ tax dollars.

Forest Park City Manager Dr. Marc-Antoine Cooper

When The Clayton Crescent asked City Manager Dr. Marc-Antoine Cooper, “No livestream link on the budget hearing?” at 5:05 p.m., Cooper responded at 5:11 p.m., “No live stream this evening.” He did not say why.

As city manager, Cooper “prepares the annual budget, submits it to Council for approval, and implements it once it is approved.”

Asked why the public had not been notified of this specific change, which is a departure from the city’s practice since The Clayton Crescent’s legal team negotiated the installation of dedicated livestream equipment, Cooper replied, “Robin the meeting was advertised in the news paper and via normal [sic] channels.”

When the Clayton Crescent asked at 5:21 p.m., “When did city decide to drop live-streaming,” Cooper appeared to start, then stop, a reply by text three times, but never responded.

On previous occasions, the city has pointed out that meetings would be accessible only by Zoom. On this occasion, the city did not point out that this particular meeting would be accessible only in person.

That’s significant because not offering a livestream at this juncture gives the public less access, not more, to meetings of its governing body–despite the city’s brand-new $36,810 livestream system and despite the fact that the public can now attend meetings in person again.

For the record

By state law, the Clayton News publishes legal notices for Clayton County, GA. O.C.G.A. 9-13-142 sets out the requirements for newspapers to serve as the legal organ in each county. The law has not been updated to include digital-only publications like The Clayton Crescent, yet print newspapers also publish digital editions.

Online searches of Georgia Press Association public notices between April 17 and June 16, 2021 turned up no notice of the public hearing via the search phrase “Forest Park.” A search for the word “budget” turned up the following legal notices published on these dates in the Clayton News, which is the county’s legal organ:

  • Wednesday, June 16: a notice of Utopian Academy for the Arts‘ governance board meeting (scheduled for Thursday, June 24 at 6 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, June 2: the City of Riverdale‘s public hearings on its budget (held June 7 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and June 14 at 5 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, May 26: the same ad for Riverdale published June 2
  • Wednesday, May 19: the same ad for Utopian Academy for the Arts published June 16
  • Wednesday, May 12: the City of Morrow’s public hearing on its budget (held June 8 at 7:30 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, May 5: DuBois Integrity Academy State Charter School’s budget hearings (held April 20 and May 18 at 6:30 p.m.). According to the legal notice, “Due to emergency provisions caused by the current pandemic, open hearings will be conducted virtually on Zoom.” The notice contained the meeting link, meeting ID, passcodes, and dial-in number.
  • Wednesday, April 21: The Housing Authority of the City of Jonesboro advertised its “draft Annual Agency Plan, Five-Year Capital Fund Program budgets, and related documents for Fiscal Year October 1, 2021 in compliance with current HUD regulations” were open for public inspection, adding, “A public hearing will be held via Zoom on June 15, 2021 at 6:00 PM. After June 1, 2021 visit the JHA Web-site http://jonesboro for the Zoom meeting id with the pass code for access to the meeting.”

However, no notice of the City of Forest Park’s upcoming budget hearings for FY2022 appear on the statewide public notice website. (The actual legal document is the one in the print edition.)

To make sure, we re-ran the search for the word “budget” for the past 52 weeks. That returned additional hits for:

  • March 31: a Riverdale budget work session at 5 p.m. April 21
  • March 24: Lovejoy‘s public hearing on its budget (7 p.m. April 19, with adoption scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 17)
  • March 10: Lovejoy’s Urban Redevelopment Agency meeting (6 p.m. March 17), “via Zoom conferencing,” to consider the FY2021 [sic] budget, as well as other business. The notice included the meeting ID and passcode.
  • March 3: DuBois Integrity Academy gave notice of two public hearings on its FY21 budget amendment (February 23 and March 16 at 6:30 p.m.), again including a Zoom link, dial-in number, meeting ID, and passcode
  • February 3: the same ad for DuBois Academy published March 3
  • January 13: Lovejoy’s Urban Redevelopment Agency meeting (6 p.m. March 17), “via Zoom conferencing,” to consider the FY2021 [sic] budget, as well as other business. The notice included the meeting ID and passcode.
  • August 19, 2020: the Housing Authority of the City of Jonesboro gave notice it was “developing its draft Five-Year/Annual Agency Plans and related documents for Fiscal Years 10/1/2020 through 10/1/2024, and Five-Year Capital Fund Program budgets, in compliance with current HUD regulation.” The agency invited the public to review the documents and to attend a public hearing on September 29, 2020.
The fees for legal notices are a major income stream for print newspapers in a time when print journalism is being decimated by venture-capital takeovers and the industry’s shift to digital media. When local newspapers go out of business, studies like this one from the University of North Carolina show that political corruption increases due to lack of oversight. Digital nonprofit news sites like The Clayton Crescent, often run by print journalists who were laid off, have stepped forward to fill the information gap.

A look back

A search of “Forest Park” for the past 52 weeks returned 74 pages of results (about 740 ads). These included numerous tax sales, debt collections, new business names, assorted court notices, name changes, abandoned storage unit sales, property seized during drug arrests, and abandoned vehicles to be auctioned off, as well as the following notices of official city meetings, bid notices, and requests for proposals. They also included major projects the city undertook while the public was locked out of City Council meetings without a reliable livestream during the city’s declared COVID-19 emergency.

The last time the City of Forest Park posted a Zoom livestream on YouTube was its June 7 council meeting–the meeting prior to the budget hearing. The city gave no explanation for dropping the livestream without explicit prior notice.

No mention of the City of Forest Park’s public hearings on either the FY 2022 or the FY 2021 budgets turned up in The Clayton Crescent’s search of the past year of legal notices published in the Clayton News.

Some ads ran more than one time to meet legal requirements:

  • June 16: notice of a Planning and Zoning Board public hearing June 17 at 6 p.m. via Zoom on a variance request “for a new subdivision at 4975 Lake Drive” and a second hearing on July 5 during the regular City Council meeting (all the Zoom meeting information is included)
  • June 9: the same Planning and Zoning Board public hearing notice as June 16
  • April 28: the City of Forest Park and the Forest Park Urban Redevelopment Agency’s May 3 bond validation hearing in Superior Court (“WAIVER OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: NO PERFORMANCE AUDIT OR PERFORMANCE REVIEW UNDER SECTION 36-82-100 OF THE OFFICIAL CODE OF GEORGIA ANNOTATED SHALL BE CONDUCTED WITH RESPECT TO THE BONDS”)
  • April 21: the same bond validation notice as April 28
  • March 24: a public comment period on behalf of Robinson Weeks Partners from March 24 through April 24 on a compliance status report (CSR) to remove several hazardous waste groundwater and soil sites from the Hazardous Site Inventory at the Fort Gillem Southeast Burial Site. The ad noted, “Comments must be received no later than midnight of the last day of the comment period [April 24] to be considered.” That was the same day that Mayor Angelyne Butler, Ward 3 councilman HĂ©ctor Gutierrez, and representatives of Gillem Logistics Center held a Zoom call with residents of the Holland Park Apartments–ostensibly to address their concerns about toxic contamination on the former base. Although the event was billed as an “Environment Community Meeting,” it was a top-down affair that gave residents little information about their concerns and that touted jobs being brought to the city. Butler promised a solution for residents’ concerns about poor maintenance and possible toxic exposure that has yet to materialize. The ad read in part, “Oasis will schedule a public meeting should the public express sufficient interest. The public will be notified of the date, time, and location of the meeting through a notice in The Clayton News.”
  • March 24: That same day, the Clayton News also ran another Robinson Weeks notice of public comment about getting Georgia Environmental Protection Division to delist Priority Parcel 4 (the North Landfill Area) at the old Fort Gillem: “The CSR includes descriptions of investigations, groundwater and soil data, and an assessment of the risk to human health and the environment at the Site.” Again, the public had from March 24 to midnight on April 24 to comment. Again, “Oasis will schedule a public meeting should the public express sufficient interest. The public will be notified of the date, time, and location of the meeting through a notice in The Clayton News.” The two ads ran less than a week after The Clayton Crescent had reported on residents’ concerns and two days before the deadline for public comment on the FTG-01 cleanup pla was due to the Army’s representative, Tom Lineer, who never responded to The Clayton Crescent’s requests for information before the deadline.
  • February 24: the City of Forest Park‘s March 1, 6 p.m. public hearing on the Urban Redevelopment Plan at City Hall, soliciting oral or written comments at the hearing.
  • February 10: Planning, Building, and Zoning invited the public to join a Zoom meeting on “a Variance to change setbacks at 5041 Maple Drive, a Text Amendment revising the Business Limitation Ordinance, and a presentation on the Zoning Ordinance Updates,” to be held February 18 at 6 p.m. (including all Zoom information). It also gave notice of a second public hearing at 6 p.m. March 1 in Council chambers.
  • February 3: the same PBZ ad that ran February 10
  • January 13: Forest Park’s qualifying fees to run for the mayor’s seat ($691.20) and the Ward 1 and 2 City Council seats ($432 each) coming up on November 2, 2021
  • October 21, 2020: the City of Forest Park’s request for sealed bids on “three (3) 2021 Model Chevrolet Tahoe’s, one White, one Shadow Grey, and one Black.” The bids were due in writing to Girard Geeter by 3 p.m. October 28, 2020. “Bids shall only be considered from companies that have an established reputation of quality service, and who stand by their warranties,” and “It shall be the intent of these specifications to cover the furnishing, and delivery of a complete vehicle.”
  • October 14, 2020: the same request for bids on Forest Park’s three Chevy Tahoes, estimated at $60,000 each with leather seats, 10.2″ digital touchscreens, 22″ chrome wheels, and other state-of-the-art digital amenities
  • August 5, 2020: the City of Forest Park‘s request for proposals for its Livable Centers Initiative study, “in support of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) sub-element 902 CAS-Livable Centers Initiative Investment Policy Studies (LCI),” with responses due by August 31, 2020 at 3 p.m.: “The City reserves the right to reject any and all bids and to re-advertise.”
  • July 15, 2020: the city’s request for proposals for Building Demolition Services at 890 Conley Road, the old Briar Forest Apartments (“28 abandoned and derelict buildings” totaling 56 units), due July 20, 2020 at 3 p.m. “Removal will include excavating the concrete foundation and footing. Removal will also include regulated materials such as asbestos, lead based paint or other products will need to be included in the proposal.”
  • July 8, 2020: the same RFP that ran July 15, 2020
  • July 8, 2020: PBZ gave notice of a July 16, 2020 public hearing at 6 p.m. at 785 Forest Parkway on the Little Ones Learning Center farm stand conditional use request, as well as to hear two text amendments to the city code (law changes), regulating “THC cultivation facilities” and breweries and distilleries. A second hearing was announced for August 3 at 6 p.m. at the City Council meeting.
  • July 1, 2020: the same RFP that ran July 15, 2020 and July 8, 2020
  • July 1, 2020: the same PBZ hearing notice that ran July 8, 2020
  • June 24, 2020: The City of Forest Park‘s request for proposals on a “Feasibility Study, Space Needs Assessment and Architectural Design Services For A New Police and Fire-EMS Public Safety Building.” due July 13 at 5 p.m. Specifically, the city sought “proposals for professional services that will include a feasibility study; space needs assessment and all architectural design and engineering services necessary to have complete construction drawings and specification documents, which are ready for construction of a Public Safety Facility which houses the Police and Fire-EMS Departments to be located at 330 Forest Parkway (4.16 ac.) and 371 Central Avenue (1.23 ac.). Once construction designs, plans, and specifications are prepared, the city will separately seek bids for a general contractor for the construction service.” The city also reserved the right “to reject any and all bids and to re-advertise.”
  • June 17: The Forest Park Urban Redevelopment Agency issued an RFP for Anvil Block Road, Phase III (Road Construction): “for furnishing all labor, materials, skill, tools and equipment for Anvil Block Road, Phase III. All questions related to the documents or procedures must be submitted in writing to the NV5 Engineers and Consultants, Inc. before 5:00 p.m. on the 5th day of June, 2020. Questions received after this date and time will not receive a response.” Bids were due at noon on June 19, 2020.
  • June 17: the same RFP for the 330 Forest Parkway plans that ran June 24, 2020

No mention of the City of Forest Park’s public hearings on either the FY 2022 or the FY 2021 budgets turned up in The Clayton Crescent’s search of the past year of legal notices published in the Clayton News.

The Clayton Crescent

No press coverage, no problem

Although the published agenda did not contain a Zoom link and dial-in information for this meeting, as it has for several months, it did contain a shortened link to the city’s YouTube page. However, no livestream was running on the YouTube page, either, when the meeting started.

Cooper did not mention any technical difficulties with the feed.

The meeting apparently ended sometime before 5:40 p.m., when The Clayton Crescent drove past City Hall to another meeting across the street at the Housing Authority of Clayton County that had been called for 6 p.m. Only a few cars were in the City Hall parking lot. Several minutes later, both Mayor Angelyne Butler and Ward 1 Councilwoman Kimberly James showed up at the HACC meeting.

After 10 p.m., a check of the link to the budget that had not been made clickable from the agenda, but which had worked when cut and pasted earlier, returned a 404 error–meaning that the PDF copy of the proposed budget had been taken down:

Screenshot of the page where the City of Forest Park proposed FY2022 budget had been posted a few hours previously.

A search of the full city website found the proposed FY 2022 budget had been added to the bottom of the Finance Department’s Financial Reports page. Chronologically, it should have appeared as the first, not the last, item in the list:

The FY 2022 proposed budget was buried at the bottom of city financial documents dating back to 2013.

In the days leading up to the budget hearing, The Clayton Crescent and Cooper had exchanged several e-mails about where the public could read the budget online and about that link not being active on the published agenda. On June 14, The Clayton Crescent asked for a link to a copy of the proposed budget. Cooper wrote, “The link for the budget will be up by COB [close of business] today.  We were having some issues with formatting, but those are being worked out now.”

During those exchanges, Cooper never mentioned that the event would not be livestreamed, nor did he mention how or when that decision had been made leading up to the annual budget hearing.

The city later posted a link to the budget prominently on its homepage slider:

As of Thursday afternoon, citizens of Forest Park could find a link to the proposed FY2022 budget on the city’s homepage.

More public access, not less

Under the Georgia Open Records Act, nothing specifies that a government body must livestream its proceedings. By the same token, nothing in the law specifies that it must roll back expanded access that it has established. Legal experts have stated that, when in doubt, the tendency in Georgia’s sunshine laws should be towards greater public access, not less.

Since the pandemic, greater government and citizen reliance on livestreamed meetings has become the norm. In a March 2020 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, attorney Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, who serves on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, “said most cities have adjusted well to holding meetings virtually or using a hybrid approach, combining virtual and in-person methods. ‘I think it really does increase public access,’ she said, ‘and it seems to us that hybrid model is really the best balance of all the different interests.'”

Case studies

Other governing bodies around Clayton County, such as the Board of Commissioners and the City of Jonesboro, have been providing livestreams for years before Forest Park began doing so:

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners livestreams its meetings and provides agendas, agenda packets, meeting summaries, minutes, and a video recording of the livestream for each meeting in an easy-to-use format.
The City of Jonesboro offers users a livestream and a portal similar to Clayton County’s, but Jonesboro’s portal contains less-complete information (fewer post-agenda summaries and minutes) and recorded meeting video is not available in several cases.

The City of Morrow does not provide a livestream but posts video of its city council work sessions and meetings on YouTube after the fact. Morrow began recording its meetings in March 2020 due to COVID-19 but never closed its chambers to the public as Forest Park did.

The City of Morrow began recording its council meetings and posting them to YouTube in March 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unlike Forest Park, Morrow never declared its City Hall or open meetings “closed to the public,” never barred the press from covering open meetings in person, and continued to allow citizens to attend meetings in person (with social distancing and masks).

Forest Park started a YouTube channel in September 2020 and has both carried livestreams and posted videos of meetings after the fact there. Before the city installed the dedicated livestream system, it had carried some meetings via Facebook Live.

The city also has hosted livestreams of Councilwoman Kimberly James’ Ward 1 monthly meetings via Zoom, such as one scheduled for Thursday, June 17:

James also used the city’s Zoom account to host a “Unity in the Community” event, which was a prayer service by several ministers of the Christian faith. Clerics of other faith traditions in Forest Park (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.) were not invited to take part in the event, which also posed questions of separation of church and state. If the city offered state-sanctioned religious instruction, possibly at taxpayer expense if city accounts or communications technology were used to conduct the meeting, it could have violated the civil rights of citizens who do not subscribe to the particular religious beliefs expressed at the city-sponsored online event.

“Technical difficulties”

Transparency tends to turn opaque as elections draw near.

The day before Forest Park’s budget hearing, a joint committee of the Georgia House and Senate came under fire for its handling of public comment on the redistricting and reapportionment process. While about 250 people accessed the hearing livestream, only 60 people were allowed to sign up to speak for two minutes each. Less than one-third of those who signed up actually testified. It’s not yet clear whether the others had signed up to block others from speaking, were unable to use the Zoom meeting interface, or just didn’t show up. Others said they had been turned away from testifying because all the slots had been filled. As a result, the committee says it may only do one more livestreamed public hearing, requiring citizens to travel to various cities around Georgia to testify in person, even though the committee has yet to announce the exact locations for each of those hearings.

And in Cobb County, the school board scheduled a do-over, citing “technical difficulties” with the livestream.

Forest Park has the largest population of any city in Clayton County. It also controls some of the county’s biggest economic drivers through the city’s URA and Gillem Logistics Center.

How many people turned up in person for Wednesday’s public hearing on the budget for Forest Park–a city of robust civic participation before City Halls’ COVID-19 lockdown?

“Zero,” said Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells.

As for how many tried to attend via the city’s livestream, the public may never know.

You can read the full draft FY 2022 budget on The Clayton Crescent’s Docs page, also known as the Reading Room. We curate various public records of high interest for the record so members of the public can find them more easily. If you have the results of an Open Records or FOIA request that you would like to share, please contact us and we will consider adding it to the Docs page.

If you want to learn more about open meetings and open records law in Georgia, which protect your right to know what your government and elected officials are doing, see The Red Book, published by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.