Supremes: Statesboro must pay citizens’ legal fees for Open Meetings challenge
Good news for open government advocates: The Georgia Supreme Court today upheld a lower court’s assessment of legal fees to citizens who challeged closed meetings held by the Statesboro City Council.
According to a summary of the case by court spokesman Jane Hansen:
The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against the City of Statesboro by upholding a Bulloch County court ruling that requires the City to pay the legal costs of citizens who sued it for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“This appeal involves the manner in which a superior court may enforce the provisions of the Open Records Act, [Official Code of Georgia] § 50-14-1, against a municipality,” says today’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton.
According to briefs filed in the case, in April 2010, Mayor Joe Brannan and the City Council of Statesboro met at the Gateway Pond House – rather than in council chambers at Statesboro City Hall – to discuss the City’s fiscal year 2011 budget. During two meetings, the officials discussed a proposal that was ultimately adopted by the council to eliminate the positions of chief of the police department and of the fire department. A group of private citizens, including Earl Dabbs – a retired certified public accountant – sued the City, its mayor and five city council members. In their complaint, they requested $8,626.80 in attorney’s fees and expenses and an injunction preventing the City from holding any future “secret” meetings. In September 2010, the superior court ruled that the City had violated the Open Meetings Act and entered a final order that: (1) prohibited the City of Statesboro from conducting any future meetings in violation of Official Code of Georgia § 50-14-1; (2) required the City to repeat the two April 2010 meetings after first publishing a notice and full agenda; and (3) required the City to pay the citizens and their attorneys $4,250 in legal expenses. The City appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, and in a cross appeal, the citizens appealed the trial court’s award of less than half their legal expenses.
In today’s unanimous decision, the high court has upheld both of the trial court’s rulings.
The City had claimed the trial court had no authority to grant attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs because they had failed to provide the City notice of their intent to sue, as required by state law, Official Code of Georgia § 36-33-5. But today’s opinion points out that under the clear language of the statute, the notice requirement applies only to claims “regarding personal injury or property damage, not violations of the Open Records Act.”
“Therefore, contrary to the City’s argument, § 36-33-5 does not apply to the Plaintiffs’ request for attorney fees, and…the Open Records Act explicitly authorizes the assessment of attorney fees,” the opinion says.
As to the plaintiffs’ complaint that the court awarded them less than half their legal expenses, the citizens “provided no evidence that the trial court abused its discretion by determining that this amount, not the amount for which they asked, was reasonable under the circumstances of this case,” the opinion says. “Accordingly, the trial court’s award of $4,250 in attorney fees and expenses will not be disturbed by this Court.”