Student Government in Violation of State Sunshine Laws
The Student Government Association has closed its executive board meetings from the public on a weekly basis, citing “personnel” issues as the reason for the closures.
In closing its E-Board meetings, the SGA is in violation of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act, according to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Student Press Law Center.
“Unless you have a specific reason that you can point to under the law, and unless you go through the proper process for doing that, you are in violation,” said Mike Hiestand, a consulting attorney for the SPLC.
“Once you assume that role and those responsibilities, it comes with it another responsibility to comply with the laws that say the business you can set needs to be done publically,” Hiestand said.
SGA E-Board members refused to allow Signal reporters into its meeting on Oct. 5, saying it was closed to discuss “personnel” issues.
Two weeks later, the doors were locked for its Oct. 19 meeting. The Executive Board is comprised of the president, executive vice president, the five sub-committee vice presidents, the president pro tempore and the chief justice of the student judicial board, who sits as a non-voting ex officio member.
SGA President James Dutton has said that the E-Board meetings must be kept closed discuss filling vacancies within the University Senate. The University Senate is an SGA organization tasked with representing the students and al- locating fee money.
“We need to talk frankly and candidly about those positions and the people that we need to fill,” Dutton said. “That’s why the meeting is closed.” State law allows public meetings to be closed for specific exceptions, including personnel decisions.
However, meetings that discuss taking action on “filling of a vacancy in the membership of the agency itself shall at all times be open to the public,” according to § 50- 14-3 (6) of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. E-Board members also discuss official business involving the proceedings of the various SGA committees during these meetings, in addition to filling Senate vacancies, according to Dutton.
“The way the constitution works is that a lot of stuff has to go to the E- Board first and then it goes to the Senate,” Dutton said. “It’s all made public none of it is clandestine.”
While Dutton has offered to allow Signal reporters into its E-Board meetings previously, he has placed conditions on the offer by requiring that they notify the E-Board in advance.
“Our E-Board meetings are not generally open,” said Dutton in a voicemail left before the Oct. 5 meeting. “If you’d like to set up a time to maybe come and visit one of our E-Board meetings, we can do that on an as needed basis.”
The law on whether the Open Meetings Act applies to university institutions is pretty clear, according to the SPLC. “Where it can be demonstrated that a student government has been granted some degree of decision- making authority by the state, such as allocation and distribution of student activity fees collected by the school – a task that the school itself would be required to perform if the student government did not exist – the Open Meetings law almost certainly would apply,” the SPLC said.
That is also Georgia State’s official policy in regards to Open Meetings laws, university spokeswoman Andrea Jones said. “The university believes meetings should be open unless there is a legitimate reason to close them,” Jones said.
However, Dutton has said that dis- cussing filling vacant senator positions gives the E-Board “an automatic exception” to close the meeting without voting. Under the Georgia Open Meetings Act, even if a meeting has legitimate grounds to be closed, the majority of members present must vote to close the meeting in public and must provide a specific exemption in the law with which to close the meeting.
Ordinarily, the names of the members present and those voting for the closure must be publishing in the meeting’s minutes. Further, the chair- person presiding over the meeting, must file a notarized affidavit certifying the reasons behind the closure.
Dutton said that while minutes of the E-Board meetings have been made, the E-Board has not officially voted to close any of its meetings. He has not said whether or not an affidavit has been signed for each meeting.
Regardless, no official documents from the E-Board meetings have been made publically available. Knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act is a misdemeanor under O.C.G.A. § 50-14-5(a).
Although the SGA has recently begun to post its minutes of Senate meetings online, it has yet to release agendas prior to these meetings or summaries three days afterwards, as required by O.C.G.A § 50-14-1(e)(1) and (2).
However, Dutton has said that the SGA will begin to post each meetings’ agenda in its office a few hours to immediately before it’s set to begin.
“We’ll have those available here in the office,” Dutton said. “And then we’re going to bring some extra copies for people that don’t have one to the meetings.” According to Dutton, anything earlier would be impossible.
“It’s never a set agenda until usually about two hours before the meeting, just because we don’t know,” Dutton said. State law gives agencies until up to two weeks prior to a meeting for an official agenda of its proceedings to be published, including the time immediately before the next meeting.
Agendas must include a record “of all matters expected to come before the agency at such meeting,” according to O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(e)(1). Like the agendas, minutes of the previous meeting must be made avail- able at least immediately before the next scheduled meeting.
However, the SGA’s constitution requires a more rigorous posting schedule – at least for its Senate meetings. “Senate meeting minutes must be distributed at least three calendar days prior to the next scheduled Senate meeting,” says Article 5, Section 1 of the SGA Constitution. In the past, minutes of SGA meetings were not made publically available until the end of the academic year.
On Oct. 7, the SGA released its minutes for its first two September meetings. Minutes for its Oct. 13 meeting should be available on Oct. 24. The SGA holds its E-board meetings once every other week on Wednesday mornings at 8 in its offices and holds its full Senate meetings on Thursday nights at 7 in the Urban Life Auditorium.