Open Meetings Violation: The Aftermath of the City of Cummings Denying Journalist Right to Video

Court Of Appeals Nixes Part Of The City Of Cummings Open Meetings Decision

Gravitt v. Olens, 2015 Ga. App. LEXIS, was decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals on July 16, 2015. It was the appeal of an enforcement action brought by the Attorney General of Georgia against the City of Cummings and its Mayor for having denied a journalist the right to video a city council meeting and also for having her removed from the meeting. The trial court imposed civil fines and attorney’s fees against the Mayor and the City. In the appellate decision, the following rulings were made:

  1. The City is not protected by sovereign immunity in an open meetings action filed against it by the Attorney General of Georgia. Since the Attorney General has been authorized by O.C.G.A § 50-14-5(a) to bring a civil enforcement action, it amounts to a legislative waiver of any immunity the City might have had.
  1. The Court further held that the Mayor had a “ministerial” duty not to violate the Open Meetings Act. Since it was a ministerial duty rather than a discretionary duty, the Mayor was not protected by official immunity.
  1. However, the Court of Appeals held that the City itself was not subject to the civil fines of $1,000 for the first violation and $2,500 for subsequent violations as provided in O.C.G.A § 50-14-6. According to the Court of Appeals, those penalties may only be imposed against “any person” who violates the Act, and that a municipality is not deemed a person.
  1. The Court of Appeals held that a fine in excess of $1,000 could not be imposed even though the lawsuit alleged three different violations against the journalist at the same meeting. The Court held that there had to be violations at a subsequent meeting to impose the $2,500 penalty, and that the lawsuit filed by the Attorney General concerned only violations at one meeting.

Left undisturbed was a $1,000 fine against the Mayor and attorney’s fees yet to be determined by the Superior Court.  It is anticipated that either the City and its Mayor or the Attorney General will seek further review from the Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court on the rulings that one or the other may disagree with.

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