Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ new LGBTQ advisory board will meet behind closed doors on Wednesday, which legal experts argue may violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Bottoms formed the 39-member advisory board in May, a panel she said “will help guide the city’s engagement with our LGBTQ residents, neighbors and friends.”
The first meeting of the board takes place on Wednesday and Bottoms will be present, but the session will not be open to the public or press, according to officials with One Atlanta, which encompasses the city's equity, diversity and inclusion office. One of the LGBTQ board's duties will be allocating $100,000 in public money to fight the city's HIV/AIDS epidemic, according to a city spokesperson.
Experts on Georgia's open meetings laws said closing the board meetings to the public could be problematic.
“My understanding of the Georgia Open Meetings statute is that, yes, [the city does] face a problem,” said Greg Lisby, communications law professor at Georgia State University. “First, your organization is a quasi-government body. Second, it has public money to spend. Therefore, its meetings are public and should be open to the public.”
David Hudson, an attorney with the Hull Barrett law firm in Augusta and general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said the Open Meetings Act applies to any committee “created by the governing body.”
“If the committee was created by authority given the mayor by the governing body, then it should be open,” he said.
Sara Henderson, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said an advisory board meeting “even discussing” the use of public funds should be open to the public.
“Closed door meetings deciding how to appropriate taxpayer dollars runs counter to helping restore citizens' faith in the City of Atlanta government,” she said. “Official city business should be conducted under the watchful eye of the public and not in an executive meeting where there is an absence of public scrutiny.”
Bottoms formed the city’s first-ever equity, diversity and inclusion office in May. That group — One Atlanta — was instrumental in forming the LGBTQ advisory board and Bottoms joining Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination.
Project Q Atlanta asked the mayor's office about the board meeting and why it was closed. We'll update the story if a city spokesperson responds to the questions.
The LGBTQ board members include Richard Cherskov, who is an owner of Initial Media, which publishes Project Q Atlanta and Q magazine.
UPDATE | A spokesperson for Bottoms' responded to Project Q Atlanta after this story was published and said the board will not be making final decisions on the public funds at Wednesday's meeting.
"This is less of a meeting as it is an orientation for board members to meet each other, set expectations, and reinforce its purpose," the spokesperson said. "Also, this board will be making recommendations only and will not be making final decisions about the expenditure of public funds. All such decisions will be made through the city’s standard practice, which is open to the public.
"There will be public meetings going forward. In addition to public meetings, minutes from the meetings will be posted online so the community can follow the board’s progress and recommendations," the spokesperson added.