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‘Secret’ not the service we want; commission violated the law

This publication, your Sylvania Telephone, continuously harps on getting people involved in their community.
You listened, but Tuesday morning another group tried to steal your thunder – sadly though it was in a negative way.
By the time the item made it to the county commission, 21 people expressed interest in becoming members of the Industrial Development Authority. That is absolutely outstanding.
Three IDA spots were up for the taking and then two more positions came open with the resignations of current board members. So the commission filled five seats.
If the story ended there, we would congratulate the newly designed IDA board, wish the individual members the best and remind them that we all are counting on them.
But that certainly isn’t the entire story. You will need to mesh in that the county commission violated the Georgia open meetings law en route to the formation of the IDA board.
So, in reality, three spots were filled illegally – no fault of the three new members or the IDA as a whole.
At the meeting, the board members went into closed session to discuss “personnel matters” (which is one of the legal reasons for the exclusion of the public), but returned to regular session to vote by secret ballot (which is a punishable violation of state law).
You cannot – I repeat – cannot vote by secret ballot.
The word is that this secret ballot format was done so as not to hurt people’s feelings. Apparently, I have become extremely dense as I get older because I do not see how hiding the truth from the public – your constituents – makes them jump with glee.
Elected officials conducting illegal activity offends me. I indeed have been alienated. It is as if you pulled out the open records law, wadded it up into a ball and slam dunked it into a wastebasket.
Citizens, you too should be offended and insulted that the people with you entrusted to guide your community in a positive direction used a “don’t alienate” defense as rational to construct a stone wall in front of your right to know the truth.
The IDA board is very important. We would have loved to hear the merits of those chosen for the IDA seats, but instead we got zipped lips.
Some of you may consider my adamant disdain for the board’s actions as a complete leap off the deep end for me. For those thinking that, please allow me to explain that your commission has voted in secret before.
The last time was when your commission voted for its current chairman and vice chair. That vote also was done by secret ballot.
When the chair-vice chair voted was conducted, the Telephone politely informed the board, through its counsel, that the commission’s action on this matter was in violation of state law. The Telephone then said if a secret ballot was conducted again, the newspaper would have to take the next step to denounce the commission’s choice of how it fills certain board seats.
On Tuesday, the board, who was advised by its county attorney not to vote secretly, obviously snubbed its nose at the newspaper and more importantly you, the citizen, the taxpayer and the voter.
The Georgia open meetings law requires all action and votes be taken in public. This is not a pick-and-choose type of law. You cannot whip out the trusty ole secret ballot when you think someone’s feelings might be hurt.
The reason that open meetings laws exist is to make sure that citizens can see how their elected officials are handling the business of the public. Elected representatives are in their positions to serve the citizens.
The laws are in place to expedite the flow of information to the public. It is not for the board to decide to twist the nozzle to the “off” position when they want to keep an item from the public’s knowledge.
The open meetings law does include the commission’s right to go into closed, or executive, session for one or more of three reasons — to discuss personnel issues, for legal matters, or to discuss the issues of real estate purchase or sell. However, once the executive session meeting is over, commissioners are required to reconvene in a public meeting and vote by either a “yea” or “nay” or instead by a show of hands, if necessary.
The law does not allow for voting in executive session, and by voting on secret ballot, it is virtually the same thing as doing it behind a locked door.
While the commission has voted by secret ballot in the past, now must be the time to follow the law – all of the law.
Non-compliance has its consequences.
Any person, not just newspapers, has 90 days, if they so choose, to bring a court suit against a law-making body such as the Board of Commissioners to challenge the actions taken by a secret ballot. Members of the commission, according to the law, can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor if “the violation was willful and intentional.”
Ignoring the advice of your attorney seems to fall into the intentional category.
Our contention is the open records law requires that minutes of meetings reflect which elected official made a motion on an issue, who seconded that motion, and how each individual elected official voted on the issue. It is virtually impossible to satisfy that requirement when board members cast their choices by secret unsigned ballots.
Commissioners, the most direct way for you to set the record straight is for this latest vote on the appointments to the Industrial Development Authority be redone in an open meeting setting and with an open – not secret -- vote taken.
Every one of us at one time or the other has made a wrong decision. You, as a board, however, have the opportunity to toss out your shanked shot into the wooded out-of-bounds and tee up another golf shot.
Having a called meeting before your July 20 monthly commission meeting would be a wise use of this mulligan. It would reassure the public – or in simpler terms the voters who put you into office – that you fully abide to the law.
For our county to succeed, we must have the confidence that our representatives will serve us in a professional manner. That includes following the law.
IDA members we applaud your zest for a better tomorrow in Screven County. And when you land a business for our community, the Sylvania Telephone will be proud to proclaim and welcome our newest acquisition.
We won’t keep it a secret.

Enoch Autry is the publisher-editor of the Sylvania Telephone.