Last week, The Current skirmished with McIntosh County officials over its ban of visual or audio recording devices in a public meeting, a clear violation of Georgia’s Open Meetings law.
During the Sept. 7 zoning public hearing and the county commission work session on Sept. 11 to discuss controversial zoning changes to the Hog Hammock District of Sapelo Island, sheriff’s deputies blocked all attendees from bringing in any device. On Sept. 12 for a county commission vote on the proposal, the sheriff allowed only credentialed media to record with only cell phones, following the receipt of legal letters on behalf of The Current from the University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic and the Georgia Attorney General’s office. The Southern Poverty Law Center also alerted the county.
The ban wasn’t a one-issue event. McIntosh County holds county governance meetings routinely in its courtroom on the courthouse’s second floor. The commission meetings take place in the courtroom because, according to county attorney Adam Poppell, it’s the biggest room available. The meetings are not courtroom proceedings and are not subject to the same strict rules as set forth in Georgia law.
However, security for courthouses is governed by county sheriffs and, in McIntosh County, Sheriff Stephen Jessup does not allow cameras, purses, or recording devices into the courthouse at any time. In the case of a public meeting, the rules violate Georgia Open Meetings Law, which guarantees every citizen the right to record a public meeting of a public body doing business in a public building.
On behalf of The Current, Samantha Hamilton, staff attorney for The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia, sent two letters to the sheriff and commission Sept. 11 and 12 to request opening the commission meetings to recording by the citizens, as well as the media representatives. After two letters from the attorneys and one from Georgia Assistant Attorney General Kristen Settlemire, the sheriff allowed credentialed media only to bring in only cell phones for visual and audio recording. Regularly monthly commission meetings are advertised on the county web site as viewable via local phone and internet provider, Darientel. However, access to see the meetings is not free. It requires a subscription to a basic channel package. Non-subscription access costs $15. No live access was provided for the Sept. 12 meeting and does not appear to be available on the darientel web site. Commission chair David Stevens is chief operating officer of Darientel or Darien Telephone Company.
While the Sept. 12 meeting could be recorded by phones, the new access still violates the law as long as citizens aren’t allowed to make their own recordings. Violations of the Open Meetings Act are punishable by $1,000 fines for anyone who “willfully” or “knowingly” blocks the law, and the court may impose a criminal fine or civil penalty up to $2,500 for additional violations within a year of the first violation.
- Letter from University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic, Sept. 11 requesting open access for public to record in public meeting as the law allows.
- Letter to commission from Southern Poverty Law Center, Sept. 11 raising questions about zoning board hearing, open meetings law under state and federal laws.
- Letter from state attorney general’s office to county attorney, Sept. 11 informing officials of Open Meetings law requirements and what constitutes a violation.
- Letter from University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic, Sept. 12 requesting open access for public according to state law and citing federal law for unequal access due to protected access to Darientel, a private company selling video and recording access to citizens, while blocking citizen recording access of the actual meeting.
The Tide brings notes and observations from The Current’s staff.