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Jan. 4 – COMMENTARY: New Year, New Council. How about New Public Information Procedures?

Category: Editorial & Opinion

By Lou Phelps, Publisher

January 4, 2016 – With a new Mayor and several new Aldermen set to be sworn into office Tuesday night, comes new opportunities to look at the public information practices of the Savannah City Council.

The new City Council will hold their first meeting this coming Thursday afternoon, Jan. 7.  There’s no official public notice yet on whether there will be a Workshop Thursday morning, which has been standard operating procedure of the past Administration.

Rebuilding the public’s trust in Savannah City government is critical.

Part of achieving this will include insuring that there is full and complete advance notice on topics set for discussion and a vote at City Council meetings. 

The City Council needs to direct the City Manager to provide the public more notice and time to talk to their elected District Aldermen in advance of voting – time to express their opinion, versus calling them up afterwards – or posting on social media – and criticizing their actions.   Or, time to do their research and come speak at a Council meeting.

Many of us have long lists of what all we hope this new Council will accomplish in its first few months, but we’d like to add a few ideas for consideration to achieve the goal of increased media and public transparency:

- Publish the Agenda for the bi-weekly, regularly scheduled meetings one week in advance.

For the public to be sufficiently informed to comment on Agenda items, they need to know far enough in advance what is on the Agenda for discussion and/or a vote.  The public learns about upcoming Agenda items often from the media, but we don’t have sufficient time to “advance the meeting.”  Further, even the Aldermen don’t have enough time to review the extensive City Council Agendas, particularly those who work full-time.  They don’t get their “book” with the Agenda and backup information until Tuesday night for a Thursday morning meeting. That’s insufficient preparation time. They are often just learning about what is going to be on the Agenda right along with the media and the public.

We note that the Agenda for this Thursday’s meeting is available today – unusual – and a good start for incoming Mayor Eddie DeLoach.

-  Publish all Agenda documents that are part of the Council’s Agenda book on the City’s website as part of the Agenda.

This is so simple, using today’s technology.   For an example, look at how the bi-weekly agenda of the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools Board of Education - and many other cities and counties in Georgia –  is published, with all reports by staff and all backup documents given to the Board of Education posted on the SCCPSS’s website IN ADVANCE of the meeting.    

Every document in the City Council’s “book” is a public document, unless it relates to a matter for Executive Session.  There is no reason to not publish those documents.  The media’s only recourse to get the documents is to file an Open Records Request which can take three days to receive.  By then, the story is over with, and the media was lacking full information to improve its reporting. 

Publish all Staff presentations at either a City Council Workshop or a regular council meeting on the city’s website.

There are endless examples of outstanding staff presentations, updates on crime statistics by Police Chief Jack Lumpkin, presentation by HR or insurance consultants, overview explanations by developers, proposed ordinances and City financial reports - to name just a few examples - that are given at the City Council’s Workshops.  The public – and the media - should have easy digital access to this information once it is presented, and be able to refer to these presentations in later months.

-  The City Council should insist that any Board, Authority or Commission to which they make appointments is complying with all Open Meetings and Open Records laws, and insure that their appointees are fully trained on both of those laws.

Below are some relevant portions of the Open Meetings Act of 2012 for those with questions.  But we also remind the newly elected City Council that there is both the letter and the spirit of the law to consider when adopting their approach, going forward.  

 

 “(d)(1) Every agency subject to this chapter shall prescribe the time, place, and dates of regular

 

meetings of the agency. Such information shall be available to the general public and a notice

 

containing such information shall be posted at least one week in advance and maintained in a

 

conspicuous place available to the public at the regular place of an agency or committee

 

meeting subject to this chapter as well as on the agency’s website, if any. Meetings shall be

 

held in accordance with a regular schedule, but nothing in this subsection shall preclude an

 

agency from canceling or postponing any regularly scheduled meeting.

 

 

 

(2) For any meeting, other than a regularly scheduled meeting of the agency for which notice

 

has already been provided pursuant to this chapter, written or oral notice shall be given at

 

least 24 hours in advance of the meeting to the legal organ in which notices of sheriffs sales

 

are published in the county where regular meetings are held or at the option of the agency to a

 

newspaper having a general circulation in such county at least equal to that of the legal

 

organ; provided, however, that, in counties where the legal organ is published less often than

 

four times weekly, sufficient notice shall be the posting of a written notice for at least 24

 

hours at the place of regular meetings and, upon written request from any local broadcast

 

or print media outlet whose place of business and physical facilities are located in the

 

county, notice by telephone, facsimile, or e-mail to that requesting media outlet at least 24

 

hours in advance of the called meeting. Whenever notice is given to a legal organ or other

 

newspaper, that publication shall immediately or as soon as practicable make the information

 

available upon inquiry to any member of the public. Upon written request from any local

 

broadcast or print media outlet, a copy of the meeting’s agenda shall be provided by

 

facsimile, e-mail, or mail through a self-addressed, stamped envelope provided by the

 

requestor.

 

(e)(1) Prior to any meeting, the agency or committee holding such meeting shall make available

 

an agenda of all matters expected to come before the agency or committee at such meeting.

 

The agenda shall be available upon request and shall be posted at the meeting site as far in

 

advance of the meeting as reasonably possible, but shall not be required to be available more

 

than two weeks prior to the meeting and shall be posted, at a minimum, at some time

 

during the two-week period immediately prior to the meeting. Failure to include on the

 

agenda an item which becomes necessary to address during the course of a meeting shall not

 

preclude considering and acting upon such item.

 

 

 

 

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    • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

      Excellent post, Ms. Phelps. Effective government can only occur when the public is informed. Transparency is paramount. Recently, a small group was trying to start up an open government group. They would help make government records available to the public. Never heard more from them.

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