(The following editorial was published in The Savannah Morning News on May 8.)
THANK YOU, Sam Olens.
Thank you for coming to Savannah last Thursday and giving a lesson on Georgia’s Open Meetings Law to Savannah City Council.
Let’s hope other elected bodies in this region, including city councils, county commissions and school boards, read the newspaper articles and stories posted online about what you said. That’s because there’s plenty for everyone to learn.
Mr. Olens, Georgia’s attorney general, said he didn’t come here to scold. He came here to teach.
He came to instruct the mayor and aldermen, who have seriously slipped up on four recent occasions, how to get right with state law.
Apparently, his soft approach worked.
“We’ve got to get our act together so we can be sure we are conforming with the law as it exists today,” Mayor Otis Johnson said later. He then added, “This will certainly change the way that we have operated.”
Let’s hope so.
And let’s also hope that Mr. Olens and his staff make the rounds among local governments elsewhere in Georgia. They apparently need a refresher course in open government, too.
Why? Too many local governments may be getting bad advice from the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
Those two statewide organizations teach elected officials how to do their jobs and be more effective. They’ve been active for years. But Mr. Olens told Savannah City Council that he knew these two groups have given out conflicting advice on Georgia’s Open Meetings Law, especially the question of whether interviews of job candidates could be conducted behind closed doors.
Bad advice means illegal acts. The GMA and ACCG must get on the same page as the man who enforces state law. It does Georgia’s mayors, city council members, county commissioners and school board members little good to learn something that’s wrong. Indeed, they could wind up being hauled into court and stuck with a fine.
We also liked what Mr. Olens had to say to City Council about other matters:
• Give advance public notice to council workshops and agendas. The city even neglected to tell citizens on its Web site that the Attorney General of Georgia was appearing before council. Is there someone at City Hall who can update such information on a regular basis?
• Don’t engage in debate and reach a consensus in pre-council meetings. Save it for the open session. Then the public can see it. Don’t let the open session be a rubber stamp.
• Don’t meet privately to discuss appointments to boards, commissions and authorities. These are public positions. The deliberations should be public, too.
While Mr. Olens came to town as a nice guy, he and his staff still have jobs to do.
Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general, told the council that the current attorney general will be much more aggressive about taking government officials to court for recurring violations than his predecessor.
That’s good. Nice guys who are attorney generals tend to finish last. So do Georgians who expect laws to be followed.