Will public officials ever learn that they are in office to do the PUBLIC’S business, not their own?
The latest violator of that standard is the Barrow County Airport Authority, which on Tuesday night held a closed door meeting that was undoubtedly illegal.
The authority is in the middle of a controversial deal to negotiate a new lease with one of its key tenants. Authority chairman Frank Nocera wants to raise the tenant’s rent from $2,200 per month to over $11,000 per month.
But Nocera apparently doesn’t want to discuss that in the open any longer and Tuesday evening, took his board behind closed doors to discuss the details.
Under Georgia law, that was illegal. Agencies can’t discuss lease contracts in secret. Nocera apparently wanted to do that because in an earlier open discussion, it came out that as chairman of the group, he’s only paying peanuts for his own lease with the airport while he’s demanding others pay a lot more.
Given Nocera’s track record, such secret dealing isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that attorney John Stell helped the authority facilitate the illegal session.
When challenged about closing the session by a Journal reporter, Stell said it would be to discuss a “potential eviction,” although there had been no prior mention of any kind of eviction. Indeed, there was reportedly no discussion of eviction in the closed meeting, either.
After the closed meeting, Stell changed his story and said the authority had discussed an old consent decree instead.
What Stell was attempting to do with his evasive answers was say the authority had met under the “pending litigation” clause that is an exception to the state’s open meetings law.
But Stell knows neither of his excuses meets the standard of that exception. Under Georgia law, an agency can meet to discuss certain litigation matters, but only if there is current, ongoing litigation, or a written threat of imminent litigation. A board can’t meet in secret just because a lawyer like Stell is involved.
Although Stell is the authority’s attorney, as an officer of the court he has a higher obligation as counsel for a public agency. He should give correct legal advice at public meetings about the legality of closing the doors to the public.
In this case, Stell instead attempted to obfuscate the law and dance around it in a bid to provide cover for a wayward authority and its self-serving chairman.
At least there is a newspaper in Barrow County now that exposes this type of behavior by government officials. Thank you Barrow Journal!!
Just call him...
10/08/10 at 10:25 AM
Stonewall Stell. He uses the same tactics as the City of Winder attorney and the school board attorney. He has for years. Surely there's lawyers out there who are clearer on meeting laws? Why not hire one of them - maybe even one not from Barrow County?