Cumming’s mayor violated the state’s Open Meetings Act three times during one night this spring, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.
In the suit, Attorney General Sam Olens cites what he contends are three violations stemming from an April 17 meeting during which Mayor H. Ford Gravitt told a Roswell woman she could not record video of that night’s city council meeting.
The woman, activist Nydia Tisdale, and her video camera were removed from the meeting on Gravitt’s orders, according to the suit.
She was also reportedly told that video recording was not permitted and later that she couldn’t record the meeting on her cell phone.
Olens asks Forsyth County Superior Court to impose a $1,000 fine for the first violation and $2,500 each for the second and third. He also asks the court to award attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.
Tisdale said she is pleased with Olens’ decision.
“I think it will take the lawsuit to hold the city accountable,” she said. “From what I’ve read of the responses from the City Attorney Dana Miles, it appears they’re trying to defend their actions and I find their actions indefensible. I don’t think they would ever admit any wrongdoing without a lawsuit.”
The city has 30 days to respond. Gravitt deferred comment on the matter to the city’s attorney, Miles, who did not return phone calls.
Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the suit is the first the office has pursued since the changes to the open meetings law took effect.
They allow for the state to seek civil penalties against government officials found to have violated the law.
The suit comes, Kane said, after the office had been “trying to negotiate with the city attorney and were never able to come to a resolution.”
After Tisdale filed her complaint with the state, Gravitt said the city was acting in the interest of safety by not allowing Tisdale’s video camera, which was mounted on a tripod.
The city later submitted a response to the complaint, saying there was confusion with the state’s new open meetings act rules, which had been signed into law earlier that day.
Olens did not agree. According to the lawsuit, “Mayor Gravitt and the officers and employees of the city of Cumming had an obligation to be aware of Georgia law at the time of their violations of its express terms.”
The suit continues: “Moreover, they were pointedly told about their legal obligations before violating them and proceeded anyway. The actions of the [city] were neither legally nor factually performed in objective good faith.”
Since filing its response to the initial complaint, the city has allowed what it refers to as “joint visual and sound recordings" at public meetings in city hall.
However, those seeking to take video using a tripod are given a specific location from which to record.
Tisdale said her actions against the city will not end with the attorney general’s lawsuit.
She plans to file a complaint over another issue, and also intends to pursue the same incident in federal court.
“I have consulted legal counsel on constitutional violations, which include the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and was told that yes, these violations are actionable in a federal court,” she said.
Tisdale said she’s unsure of the timing on a federal suit, or if it would be filed before the state suit has been resolved.
“I am uncertain of the timeline at this moment,” she said. “If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. So I’m taking a stand, not for just myself, but for the general public.”