Cumming may become the first city in the state to be cited with violating Georgia’s new open meetings laws.
Oral arguments in a case against Mayor H. Ford Gravitt filed by Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday in Forsyth County Superior Court. Senior Visiting Judge Robert W. Adamson will hear the matter.
The attorney general’s suit cites what Olens has contended are three violations of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act. It asks the judge to impose fines, as well as to award attorney's fees and other litigation costs.
The case stems from an incident on April 17, 2012, which ironically was the same day that changes to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws took effect.
During a Cumming City Council meeting that night, Gravitt had Nydia Tisdale, a Roswell woman who records various Forsyth County government meetings for a Web site, removed from council chambers after she began filming.
Tisdale and her video camera, which was on a tripod, were escorted by Cumming Police Chief Casey Tatum into the hallway outside the chambers for a brief period. Tisdale later returned to the meeting and resumed filming on a still camera, when she was allegedly told that wasn’t allowed either.
Tisdale filed a complaint with Olens’ office shortly after the incident and later, her own civil case in federal court.
Olens has maintained that Gravitt’s actions during the meeting were violations of Georgia’s Open Meeings Act, which was signed into law the same day as the city council meeting in question.
The new law, as well as the old, both state that video and audio recordings are permitted during public meetings.
Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman with Olens’ office, did not want to comment on any strategy for Thursday’s oral arguments.
“We’re just going to let our case play out in court,” she said.
In previous interviews, Olens has said he takes the matter quite seriously.
“Access to government is essential, and there’s no question that there was a violation of the open meetings act and we want an admission of that violation by the city and a promise not to violate it in the future,” he has said.
Attorneys with the firm Miles, Patterson, Hansford and Tallant, which represents the city, have said that it is their firm’s longstanding policy not to comment on ongoing litigation before a decision is reached.
But in its response to the allegations, filed last summer, attorneys contend that since Gravitt was acting in his official capacity as mayor at the time of incident, under the Georgia Constitution, he has “sovereign immunity.”
“Both the City of Cumming and Mayor Gravitt fall within the penumbra of sovereign immunity provided for by the Georgia Constitution,” the response stated.
Gerry Weber, Tisdale’s attorney, said the decision resulting from the hearing Thursday will be important for her federal suit, which hasn’t been assigned a court date.
“Some of our claims overlap with the claims of the attorney general’s case and some of our claims are the federal constitutional claims that are beyond even those contained in [Olens’] lawsuit,” Weber said.
“A positive result for the attorney general would be a positive result for Nydia Tisdale … so we’re looking forward to the argument and are interested in what decision comes down.”