Court of Appeals OKs Closed Real Estate Votes

An unfortunate decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals is contrary to the notion that the Open Records and Open Meetings acts should be widely interpreted to maximize openness in government. The decision results from a series of closed meetings held by the Bibb County Board of Commissioners. In 2008, the board closed meetings to discuss real estate acquisitions, and in those meetings, voted to authorize its agent to buy parcels of property for a new courthouse. Minutes of those closed meetings were made publicly available in January 2009. When complaints were made about the closed meeting votes, the commissioners voted on Feb. 17, 2009, in an open meeting to ratify the votes that had been taken in the previous closed meetings. The pertinent portion of the Open Meetings Act, O.C.G.A. 50-14-3(6) specifically allows a public agency to vote to meet in a closed session for “discussing the future acquisition of real estate.” The press and the office of the Attorney General of Georgia have for years interpreted this to mean that only discussions can take place in a closed meeting and that any vote would have to be in an open session.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has now disagreed in Johnson v. Board of Commissioners of Bibb County, (Feb. 10, 2010). In an opinion by Judge John J. Ellington, joined in by Judges Gary Blaylock Andrews and Sara L. Doyle, the Court of Appeals held that in spite of the specific language in the statute regarding “discussing,” a 1980 Georgia Supreme Court case indicated that minutes should be taken showing the “aye and nay votes” for closed session meetings. Thus, the Court of Appeals reasoned that unless the Open Meetings Act specifically required a vote to be taken in public (as it does for personnel actions), the Georgia Supreme Court had signaled that an agency may take votes on subjects considered in a closed meeting.
Read More of David Hudson’s Article to the Georgia Press Association