Politics & Government

Nearly 30 city boards are not sharing information online. Fixes are coming, city manager says

It should soon get easier for you to find more information about what’s going on at city agencies that provide a variety of services to residents and business including the Board of Health and the Crime Prevention Board, to name a few.

Information found online is being updated for more than two dozen Columbus government boards, commissions, committees and authorities after a Ledger-Enquirer investigation prompted the city to make changes to its website and issue reminders about the need to comply with state open meeting laws.

A survey by the L-E of the 43 agencies listed on the Columbus Consolidated Government website last month showed 29 of those agencies were not posting the dates, times and locations of regularly scheduled meetings online. That means that they were not in compliance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

When the violations were brought to his attention earlier this month, City Manager Isaiah Hugley said the omission of the meeting dates and times was an oversight and that the issue would be corrected.

“That’s something we can simply correct, and I will correct it,” Hugley said. “I had a conversation with the Clerk of Council and. . .we understand that under the Open Meetings Act, Georgia law, that regular meetings should be posted on the website and at standard locations and so we will certainly make sure that going forward that oversight is corrected.”

He said the city “makes every effort to be transparent” by live streaming and re-broadcasting city council and planning advisory commission meetings.

Following the L-E interview, Hugley sent a letter including a new administrative policy for boards and commissions, citing the Georgia Open Meetings Act, to departments.

The city website provides little information about the role of the many of the boards and committees that council members and the mayor appoint. The groups are meant to advise the council, solicit citizen input and set policy for various departments and other agencies.

They range in purpose from overseeing programs that are supposed to help prevent crime to providing resources to keep residents healthy.

Though additional violations of open meetings laws were not found during L-E’s investigation of the CCG website, a reporter found incorrect or limited information on the website that limits the transparency of the 43 city agencies, including:

Fourteen agencies that listed one or more board members whose terms had expired, some as far back as 2017.

Four agencies that still had former Mayor Teresa Tomlinson listed as a board member as of May 3, even though she left office in December.

Three agencies that post agendas online and six that post minutes online.

Twenty-six agencies that have had minutes accepted by the city council in the past year.

Broken links, which are common on web pages throughout the city website.

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A screenshot from the city website on May 3 shows former Mayor Teresa Tomlinson still listed as a member of the Board of Health. The website also shows board members serving expired terms or terms that have not been updated.

Broken link.PNG
A screenshot from June 6 shows a broken link on the city website that is supposed to forward citizens to information about the Crime Prevention Board.

When asked who was responsible for keeping the city website up to date with current meeting information, Hugley said the Clerk of Council, Sandra Davis, will be responsible moving forward.

“We have had transition, as you are probably aware of, in the Clerk of Council’s office, and so these are things that we have to make sure are in order,” Hugley said.

Hugley was referring to circumstances of Davis’ recent appointment to the role in December 2018, which came after an audit uncovered missing contracts, minutes and some ordinances not updated in the Clerk of Council’s office. The former clerk, Tiny Washington, was not reappointed.

According to records, Davis obtained her clerk’s certification in 2003 through the University of Georgia, where clerks learn about state laws and how to comply with government regulations. She also served 18 years under Washington when she was Clerk of Council.

Hugley said every board is expected to submit minutes to council for approval, and was not aware that only 26 out of 43 had minutes accepted by the board within the past year.

When asked if he felt the CCG website made it easy for citizens to find pertinent information, Hugley said he thought it did.

“In fact, we spent considerable time upgrading and updating our website over the past few months so the website that you see now is a new and improved website,” Hugley said. “I teach a class at Columbus State University in city/county management, and my students actually looked at the website and suggested a change, and I had one of my students come and do an internship and that student worked with the IT department to spearhead the change and upgrade the website.”

Hugley said those changes took effect less than a year ago.

The letter sent by Hugley on June 4 states that the new policy applies to all “agencies, boards, authorities, commissions and committees appointed by the mayor and/or Columbus City Council” including any nonprofit organization that receives more than 33% of its funds from CCG.

The policy reinforces Georgia law in requiring all regular meetings be posted on the city website and at the standard meeting location, and that the agenda for the regular meeting shall be made available as far in advance as reasonably possible.

Other highlights of the policy include:

The agenda for regular meetings must be made available as far in advance as reasonably possible.

Each agency shall be responsible for having a designated secretary or staff liaison to provide the clerk of council a notice of all scheduled meetings.

The clerk of council will serve as liaison between agencies and the city IT Department to have information posted on the CCG website.

After approval by the agency, minutes must be provided to the clerk of council to be included in the city council agenda and accepted by council.

Summaries of meetings must be available for public inspection within two business days of adjournment of the meeting.

Notice of changes to regular meetings must be submitted to the clerk of council at least 10 days prior to the meeting for processing with IT (Georgia law requires seven days).

Hugley said it could take a couple of weeks for the meetings information to appear on the city website.