A visiting judge has given attorneys until Aug. 9 to resolve a dispute over whether Cumming’s mayor violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act in April 2012, as state’s attorney general contends.
Senior Judge Robert W. Adamson heard arguments in the case Thursday in Forsyth County Superior Court.
If attorneys for Mayor H. Ford Gravitt and Attorney General Sam Olens are unable to reach an agreement by then, the judge said, they will have until Aug. 30 to submit supplemental briefs in the matter.
In addition, the judge gave them the option of mediation if either side deemed it necessary.
Thursday morning, Adamson heard arguments from both sides for and against the city’s motion to dismiss the case.
After the lunch recess, each party weighed in on the state’s motion for summary judgment against the mayor. The judge did not make a decision on either issue.
Olens’ suit cites what he 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.
Thursday morning, Kevin Tallant, an attorney who represents Cumming, argued that Gravitt could not be held liable in the case due to sovereign immunity since he was acting in his official capacity during the April 17 city council meeting.
Georgia’s Constitution, he said, provides that officials cannot be sued when acting in those capacities. Therefore, the case should be dismissed.
Kelly Campanella, representing the attorney general’s office, countered that sovereign immunity does not apply in the case.
She argued that if it did, the attorney general would never be able to hold any local governments accountable under the open meetings act.
Adamson asked the parties whether they had tried to resolve the matter before it reached court.
Both senior attorneys, Dana Miles for the defense and Stefan Ritter for the prosecution, said they had done so.
The “sticking point,” the men said, came when the Attorney General’s office wanted Gravitt to admit he had violated state law.
Miles said they could not allow such an admission since that likely would impact the federal litigation Tisdale has filed.
Prior to the lunch recess, the judge jokingly asked both sides to “have lunch together” to try to reach some sort of agreement.
“We’re not talking about a mountain of gold here,” Adamson said. “We’re talking about doing what council tells me the city is already doing and that is having a carefully defined, well-thought-out regulation by which any citizen can be safe in a meeting with recording devices or video cameras or anything else, and we already do that, I’m told.”