by: Frank E. Jenkins, III
Jenkins, Bowen and Walker, P.C.
15 South Public Square
Cartersville, GA 30120
If you thought the Open Meetings Act was settled, it was not. This year our General Assembly adopted amendments to the Open Meetings Act (O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1 et seq.). But the changes were not wholesale, and many of the same provisions remain. This article will highlight the significant changes that you, as a zoning administrator, will need to know, and hopefully, it will serve also as a refresher of the continued rules for calling and conducting meetings of the planning commission, board of appeals, or any committees of your local government.
1. Meetings Required to Be Open to the Public
A meeting required to be open to the public is defined as a gathering of a quorum of members of a commission or committee at which official business or policies are "formulated, presented, discussed, or voted upon." This of course would include any meeting of a planning commission or board of appeals or any committees of those agencies. The new law changes the definition of meeting to include any gathering, regardless of where or how it was convened. Under the old law, a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Act was one pursuant to a scheduled or called meeting. Now it applies to any gathering, whether by happenstance or otherwise, in which the business of the agency is presented or discussed. It means of course that you should advise any agencies you work with of the new law and that where a quorum of the members are together, whether at a cocktail party or a chance meeting on the street, business of the agency should not be discussed.
2. Exception to View of Property under Jurisdiction of the Agency
The amended law makes clear that a gathering of a quorum of the members of an agency to inspect physical facilities or properties under its jurisdiction is not subject to the Open Meetings Act. This is true so long as there is no discussion of official business during the time of the inspection. This new clarity of the law means that a planning commission, for example, may arrange for a quorum of its members to visit a property over which it has jurisdiction to act on a variance or a zoning request. Discussion of the issues concerning the property under exception would seem to be allowed under the new law, so long as no other business is discussed and no agreed action is taken. Straw votes are off limits.
3. All Votes At Any Meeting Must Be Made in Public
Not surprisingly, all votes of a public agency must be made in public. There are provisions for votes during an executive session, which is a meeting lawfully closed to the public, but the law specifies that any vote in an executive meeting is not binding on the agency until the vote is actually taken in public.
4. Establish Time, Place and Date of Regular Meetings
The new law still requires public agencies to establish a schedule of regular meetings. It doesn't require a specific number or frequency of meetings, but it does require the agency to establish a schedule of regular meetings and that the schedule is posted in a conspicuous place at a location where the meetings are to be held. The best practice is to establish a meeting schedule for a calendar year and post that schedule. If there is no business to be conducted at the scheduled meeting time, the law allows for cancellation of the meeting.
5. Required Advanced Agenda of Public Meetings
Preparation of an agenda is not a new provision, but it does reaffirm that a public agency is required to prepare an agenda of its public meeting and make it available to the public at least within two weeks in advance of the meeting. It provides that a public agency is not required to follow the agenda at the meeting, as an agency may amend the agenda at the meeting. It simply requires that an agenda be prepared and available in advance.
6. Summary of Subjects Acted on and the Members Present at a Public Meeting
Within two business days after a public meeting, an agency is required to prepare a summary of the subjects that were voted on and the members present at the public meeting. This summary must be available for public inspection within two business days after the meeting. As to the subjects acted on, the statutory provision likely means only those provisions which were actually voted on by the public agency.
7. Adoption of minutes at the Next Regularly Scheduled Meeting
All public agencies are required to prepare minutes of their public meeting which must be approved by the agency no later than the next regularly scheduled meeting of the agency. This is not a new provision, but it reiterates the requirement that minutes be prepared and approved under the schedule set forth in the statute. It does add a new provision regarding the minutes, however. The minutes shall include the names of the members present at the meeting, a description of each motion or proposal made, the identity of the person making and seconding the motion, and a record of all votes including the name of each person voting for or against a motion or proposal.
This Open Meetings Act is more extensive than discussed in this article and has provisions which bear less importance to zoning administrators. But don't worry if you fail to follow the law. It provides that a person who knowingly and willfully conducts or participates in a meeting in violation of the act is guilty of a misdemeanor. But the good news is that upon conviction, you are subject only to a fine not to exceed $1,000.