Thursday, March 03, 2016

Georgia attorney general sides with paper battling hospital that failed to conduct open meetings

A daily Georgia newspaper in a battle with a local hospital over transparency told The Rural Blog that it was notified this morning by the state Office of the Attorney General that the hospital authority it is out of compliance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act. The story is a good reminder of the importance of freedom of information, with Sunshine Week coming up March 13-19

"The Valdosta Daily Times reported in mid-February that the board of South Georgia Medical Center had met in an executive session prior to the regularly scheduled meeting," Susanna Nesmith reports for Columbia Journalism Review. When the hospital failed to respond to requests from Times editor Jim Zachary to comply with state open records laws, Zachary wrote an editorial blasting the hospital. The hospital, which buys tens of thousands of dollars in ads with the Times, responded the next day by pulling its ads and refusing to sell the paper in its gift shop.

"Georgia law allows public boards to meet in closed session in limited circumstances, and only after the boards have met in public," Nesmith writes. After the initial Times story ran Zachary said he "went to meet with hospital officials to urge them to follow the law. He even gave them the name of a contact at the state attorney general’s office who could explain the specifics of the law. When he learned that no one from the hospital reached out to the AG’s office, Zachary ran a sharply-worded editorial that condemned the hospital’s clandestine meetings and noted that the Times had notified the AG’s office of the violation."

Bill Ketter, senior vice president of news at Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., which owns the Times, told Nesmith, “Some papers would probably cave on this. We don’t allow our papers to do that. That’s one of the benefits of being part of a larger organization that backs you when you’re right and will support you financially if need be. This is a case of them trying to throw their weight around. We’re not going to let them.”

Here is an excerpt from Zachary's editorial:
Jim Zachary
"The Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County needs to stop violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act. State law requires governing bodies to meet in open public session, entertain a motion and a second, then take a public vote prior to going into a closed door meeting. The intention of the General Assembly is that the public has a right to know both when and why public officials go behind closed doors.

In open public meetings it votes to approve recommendations made in executive session, without including those actions on the meeting agenda and without defining what those recommendations include. This is the exact same violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act the Office of Attorney General chastised the Valdosta Board of Education for last year, resulting in the BOE changing its procedures.

There are a lot of actions by the hospital authority that are never discussed in open public meetings. That must mean either deliberations are taking place illegally outside of the public purview or that decisions are being made unilaterally without the knowledge and consent of authority members. In either case, it is wrong, it is a violation of the law and a violation of the public trust."

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