After being in violation of Georgia open meetings laws for an undetermined amount of time, the Columbus Consolidated Government board in charge of conducting elections and tallying citizens’ votes made changes to comply with the law, after an investigation by the Ledger-Enquirer.
The director blamed the violation on an oversight and recent changes to the board’s city-run website.
Earlier this month the L-E learned the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registration had not published the location, date and time of the regularly scheduled meetings on its web page as required by state law for at least the past year.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act states that agencies “shall prescribe the time, place, and dates of regular meetings of the agency” and that the information “shall be available to the general public and a notice containing such information shall be posted at least one week in advance and maintained in a conspicuous place available to the public...as well as on the agency’s website, if any.”
The L-E checked the office’s page as well as the city website on May 6 and could find no information regarding the location, date and time for upcoming board meetings; web page archives dating back to April 23, 2018 show the information was not published then either.
After an inquiry by the L-E on May 10, the information was published to the web page.
Nancy Boren, who is the director of the elections and registration office and has been in the role for 24 years, acknowledged that the information had not been posted online prior to meetings. She said the omission was simply an oversight.
“We did not realize that our meeting time and date had been taken off our website,” Boren said. “I don’t know what to say about that, except that as soon as we knew it was not appearing, we posted it.”
Having worked in the office for so long, Boren said it never occurred to her to look.
“It’s not always something you realize when you’ve met every first Thursday for 25 years,” Boren said. “But I understand someone not knowing that wouldn’t be able to find it.”
Boren said she wasn’t sure of the exact date, but that the city’s website had been updated within the past year or so. That led to some items being removed from the website, she said.
“We used to have it out there, you know, the first Thursday of every month, and it was on the elections page. Then when we switched to columbusga.gov instead of columbusga.org, there were some changes made in some of the websites,” she said.
She said the department also was made aware that some older campaign disclosures had been taken off the page due to space limitations.
“As soon as we receive candidate and campaign information we send it to ethics at the state, but then we also post it here locally,” she said. “We called (the webmaster) and said ‘hey look, people are calling us for those all the time. Why did we take them off?’ We need them out there for at least the five year retention period that were required to keep them. So we’re making little tweaks as we’re going along.”
To get changes made to the web page, the department must make an IT request.
“It’s not a moveable thing for us where we can just add and take away stuff,” Boren said. “We’re certainly open to suggestions and what voters may need and the fact that the board meeting is every first Thursday is certainly critical.”
She said the recent addition of the meetings information was posted the same day the request was made.
The board does not appear to be violating any other open meetings laws at this time.
Changes to the regularly scheduled meeting dates are made available to the public through a notice at the department’s physical location and in a fax sent to the county’s legal organ, the L-E, as required by law, as well as on the department’s Facebook page.
And though the board is not required by law to post agendas online, Boren said Monday she would look into putting the agendas on the web page as well.
The agendas should be available on Facebook prior to the meetings, thanks to a citizen’s social media request, according to elections specialist Jeanette James.
On April 18, a citizen asked in comments on the department’s Facebook page where an agenda could be found for an upcoming meeting, and also asked for agendas to be posted in advance of future meetings.
An agenda was posted shortly before 11 a.m. May 2, three hours before the meeting was to take place.
“Nobody ever asked us that before,” James said. “Once she asked us that, then we were like ‘I don’t see why not.’”
Boren said the agendas are also posted at the board of elections office, which is located on the second floor of the City Services Center, prior to the meetings. The timing on that depends on when the agenda is made ready, Boren said, and state law only requires the documents be posted “as far in advance of the meeting as reasonably possible.”
“As soon as we can get the agenda out there, we’ll put it out there,” Boren said.
The board appoints a staff member from the office to serve as secretary. That person records the minutes and submits them to the clerk of council, and handles other duties like notifying the legal organ of any changes to the meeting dates and times.
The Board of Elections and Registration is one of many boards and authorities that falls under the purview of open meetings and open records acts. The law covers regional development authorities, planning commissions, zoning boards and commissions or authorities such as hospital authorities, established by state or local governments.
The laws are in place to make sure citizens and the media are given timely notice of public meetings as well as access to open records in order to keep local government activities as transparent as possible.
A survey of the 40 or so boards listed on the city’s website by the L-E shows that only a couple list the locations, times or dates of regularly scheduled meetings, or any other pertinent information related to meetings.