Jim Zachary: Time to drop quorum language, end 3-on-3

With Sine Die approaching, it is already time to look ahead to the 2020 legislative session.

Open government advocates and sympathetic lawmakers have commonly said they fear reopening the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act because of concerns the climate in the General Assembly is not conducive to creating more transparency.

That is most unfortunate and very concerning.

Why would any lawmaker at any level of government want government to be any less open to the public?

Simply put, people with nothing to hide, don’t hide.

It is time for the General Assembly to revisit what is called the “quorum language” in the Open Meetings Act.

The law prohibits a quorum or more of any government agency from meeting and discussing the public’s business in private.

That language opens the door for all kinds of deal making and behind the scenes maneuvering, concealing the transactions of government from the governed.

The public has every right to have full access to all the deliberations of local government.

There should be no exceptions or loopholes.

Members of county commissions, city councils, boards of education and local authorities and commissions often play a game that has been called “3-on-3.”

Here is how you play the game: If it takes four or five people on an elected body to constitute a quorum then three members meet and discuss public business and three other members meet and then an emissary from each group meets and they strategize, plot and plan public business with no public present to hear the talks.

By the time they get to an open public meeting, all decisions have already been reached and votes are taken with little to no public discussion, leaving the public in the dark.

It is technically legal.

It is also absolutely wrong.

Being legal and being right are not always the same thing.

Several states have strong Sunshine Laws that prohibit such game playing.

In fact, neighboring states have laws that say no two or more members of the same elected body can deliberate public business in private.

That is the kind of language Georgia should have in its Open Meetings Act.

The public should not only be present for the votes on policy but should be able to listen to all the deliberations and be made aware of how elected officials make decisions.

The public should hear all arguments pro and con.

The public should know what pressures or outside interests are brought to bear on the men and women they have elected to do their business.

What brave lawmaker, who really cares about public service in real and meaningful ways and who is truly committed to government transparency, will carry a bill in the next legislative session to amend the Open Meetings Act to drop the quorum language?

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI’s regional editor for its Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas newspapers and editor of The Valdosta Daily Times. He is the vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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