CUMMING — A judge has found in favor of Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens in an open meetings dispute involving Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt.
Senior Superior Court Judge Robert Adamson granted a request from Olens’ camp for summary judgment in the case. He also ordered the city and mayor to pay $12,000 in penalties plus attorney fees.
The case stemmed from an April 2012 incident in which Roswell resident Nydia Tisdale was asked by Gravitt to stop filming during a meeting of the Cumming City Council.
In a statement, Olens heralded the ruling as “a major victory for government transparency.”
“Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly,” he said. “The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”
Attorneys for the city could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the matter. However, Gerald Blackburn, Cumming’s administrator, said the city does plan to appeal the decision.
The ruling comes more than a year after Adamson presided over a hearing on the matter in July 2013.
At the time, attorneys for the city had asked that the case be dismissed, contending that Gravitt had sovereign immunity as an elected official.
Tisdale, in a separate federal suit that was filed after Olens’ case, has maintained that she was forcibly removed from the 2012 meeting on Gravitt’s orders by Cumming Police Chief Casey Tatum.
Tisdale also contends that upon returning to the meeting, she was asked by another police officer to stop recording on her still camera.
In Adamson’s ruling, he states that he finds Gravitt’s sovereign immunity does not apply in the case.
“Indeed, the Open Meetings Act would be essentially meaningless were local governments immune from its enforcement, as defendants urge,” the ruling states. “The Court simply cannot conclude that this was the intent of the General Assembly in enacting the Open Meetings Act, including the recent civil penalty provision provided for in H.B. 397.”
Adamson, in his ruling, found three separate actions that are all violations of the Open Meetings Act:
“(1) They wrongfully prevented a citizen from video recording a meeting at the start of the meeting; (2) they wrongfully removed the citizen from the meeting when she had done nothing wrong; and (3) they wrongfully prevented the citizen from later videotaping the meeting, without sound, using a different camera.”
Adamson went on to order the defendants to “pay penalties in the amount of $12,000 … and attorneys [sic] fees in an amount to be determined at a subsequent hearing or via agreement.”
Olens said his office “takes very seriously our responsibility to enforce the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts.”
“The actions by the mayor in this circumstance were egregious, and it is essential that he be held responsible for his actions,” he said.
Tisdale said she was pleased with the ruling.
“I just finished reading the judge’s final order and it’s a masterpiece,” she said. “I am delighted to have this decision and it has been a long time coming … it’s the best news I’ve heard in a couple of years.”
Tisdale added that her attorney had filed Adamson’s ruling in regards to her federal suit as well.
“I’m really hopeful [the federal suit] is close to resolution,” she said. “With this order from Superior Court, I think it definitely helps our case immensely.”
Tisdale also thanked Olens for his efforts on her behalf.
“I’m very pleased with the judge’s ruling and I’m delighted that Sam Olens did file this suit against the city of Cumming and against Mayor Gravitt,” she said, “and I’m glad that Sam Olens stands up for open government and transparency.”
Tisdale was arrested last weekend while videotaping a GOP event in Dawson County.
In that case, Sheriff Billy Carlisle says Tisdale faces potential charges of criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer after the property owner asked her to stop taping and leave.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.