Superior Court Judge Jesse Stone should have a decision in the open records lawsuit four local media organizations filed recently against the city of Augusta, he said during a hearing Monday.
The suit seeks an injunction that would force the city to release the records of the four people interviewed for the fire chief position. The city legal office has provided the resume of one candidate who its attorneys referred to in the hearing as the finalist.
The Augusta Press, the Augusta Chronicle and television stations WJBF and WRDW are seeking an injunction that would prevent commissioners from voting on the finalist, Antonio Burden, until the city provides application documents of the other three candidates.
The news organizations’ attorney David Hudson told Stone that his clients filed open records requests as early as April 13. The request was for the city to release the names of the four finalists.
The law allows governing bodies to operate part of a job search for a “agency executive” behind closed doors, but members must provide the identities of “as many as three” finalists and then wait 14 days from that period to hold a public vote who will get the job, Hudson explained to the court.
The suit alleges that at the time the requests were made, four finalists were still in the running for the position, and the city only identified a sole finalists’ name weeks after the requests were made.
Hudson told the court that the city kept the entire process secret, didn’t reply to repeated open records requests and moved forward to usher Burden into the fire chief position without any input from the public.
“It is the strong public policy of this state to favor open government; open government is essential to a free, open and democratic society,” Hudson said. “Access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government.”
City Staff Attorney Samuel Meller argued that Augusta had followed the law in releasing the name of only one finalist because the law states the city must provide the names of “up to three finalists.” Providing documents related to one candidate met the requirements of the law, he argued. Meller also defended the city’s closed-door approach, saying the public needs to depend on local leaders to find the best candidate for such a critical job as fire chief.
“(The public) have to give credit when it comes to essential functions of the government,” Meller said.
Meller told the court that because the selection was made in closed session, it did not constitute an “official action,” leading Stone to ask him if the other three finalists could be considered at this time since they were not voted out publicly.
“No, Your Honor, they’re not,” Meller replied.
Should the injunction be granted, it is unclear what options the city may have other than to seek new candidates to evaluate.
After the hearing concluded Monday, the Georgia Municipal Association filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief on behalf of the city that reads, “Forcing the disclosure of applicants who are no longer or never were considered for employment, it could put all agencies under the act, including cities and potential city job applicants, in a highly uncertain position.”
According to Hudson, the GMA brief doesn’t address the fact that the open records requests were made when there were four finalists for the position and none of the requests asked for the names of those not still in contention for the job.