Officials hold closed vote in meeting

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council, Board of Commissioners and Industrial Development Authority held a closed meeting Monday afternoon at City Hall for the stated purpose of discussing land acquisition.

Several officials confirmed a vote took place during the executive session. City Attorney Ed Crudup cited a section of Georgia law that exempts meetings discussing the future acquisition of real estate from the Open Meetings Act. According to the law, minutes of the meeting must be kept and made public once the acquisition of real estate has been completed, terminated or abandoned or related court proceedings initiated.

"Unfortunately, in a poorly reasoned decision last year, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that real estate acquisition votes could be taken in a closed meeting," said David E. Hudson, legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association.

Elected officials said Tuesday there was no vote to actually purchase land, but rather to direct attorneys to draft a letter to an existing industry and offer to purchase land for an expansion or relocation.

Hudson said he believes the vote is still allowed to take place in closed session based on the 2010 case of Johnson vs. Bibb County Board of Commissioners, in which the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that Bibb County officials did not violate the Open Meetings Act by voting to purchase property to build a new courthouse during executive session.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said that the meeting was held behind closed doors due to the sensitivity of information, which could affect employees of an existing industry. She said officials are a "long way" from making any land purchases, but merely gave the Industrial Development Authority the authority to approach the industry in question.

"Any time it comes to the paper before we have an opportunity to strike a deal, a company questions our ability to be professional in terms of how we negotiate," she said.

Councilman Keith Dalton said even elected officials were not given the name of the company and documents handed out were taken up at the end of the meeting. He said the need for an executive session was so as not to unnecessarily alert employees of a pending change to their company and due to the competitive nature of the matter.

Crudup characterized the matter as "very, very sensitive" but would not comment further.

In addition to elected officials and attorneys, also present at the meeting were Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall, Economic Development Director Shannon Davis, and Jerry Silvio, the Chamber's vice chairman for economic development.

Government agencies are allowed to go into executive session to discuss land acquisition, personnel and litigation matters.