The Coastal Courier was denied an open records request for the executive session minutes and transcripts of the special called meeting held Oct. 22, which addressed the arrest warrant that was issued to City of Hinesville Manager Kenneth Howard.
Howard was one of seven people charged, on Oct. 19, with the misdemeanors of pandering and solicitation of sodomy over incidents that occurred during the 2017-2018 academic year at Fort Valley State University, according to District Attorney K. David Cooke Jr., with the Macon Judicial Circuit.
At the Oct. 22 special called meeting city Mayor Allen Brown and the council immediately voted to go into executive session. When they returned to public forum, the mayor read a statement announcing that Howard would continue his duties as city manager. A portion of the statement said:
“The misdemeanor warrants recently issued against several prominent supporters of Fort State Valley University including Mr. Howard do not diminish this title. As noted by the district attorney, responsible for this case, these warrants are mere allegations. Mr. Howard denies any wrong doing, is presumed innocent, unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. Importantly, such misdemeanor allegations do not involve misconduct and are unrelated to Mr. Howard’s job performance. For this reason, Mayor and Council intend that Mr. Howard continue as City Manager pending final disposition of this case, so long as the affairs of the city are not adversely affected.”
The Courier alleges that the city failed to properly notify the public 24 hours in advance of the special called meting as required by state law.
Staff at the Courier were alerted, on Oct. 20, that a special called meeting was being considered but that the final decision had not been made as to the date and time.
On Monday Oct. 22, Courier reporter Lainey Standiford discovered a notice was on display in the doorway of city hall. The notice, dated Oct. 22, was announcing the Special Called Meeting for that afternoon.
Seeking clarification, the Courier sent an email to the city that morning regarding the posting. After receiving the newspaper’s written request, the city verified the meeting would be held that afternoon.
According to the Open Meetings Act, in counties where the legal organ is published less than four times weekly, written notice must be posted for at least 24 hours at the regular meeting place. Also, the law states that, upon written request from any local broadcast or print media outlet whose place of business and physical facilities are located in the county, notice must be given to that requesting media outlet at least 24 hours before the called meeting by telephone, fax, or e-mail.
The Courier alleges that the notice posted at city hall and the email confirmation that a meeting had been scheduled were less than the 24 hours required by law.
However, the city maintains it was in compliance, because staff posted an undated notice on exterior doors to city hall on Sunday, Oct. 21.
The city’s reply to the Courier’s open records request stated in part:
“The first public notice advertising the date, time and subject of the October 22, 2018 Special Called Meeting of the Hinesville City Council complied with O.C.G.A. Section 50-14-1(d)(2) when the notice was conspicuously posted on City Hall on Sunday morning October 21, 2018, by Administrative Assistant Rose Kenner. The undated notice was affixed on all four exterior doors of City Hall more than 24-hours in advance of the said meeting.”
“After receiving further instructions from the City Clerk, Ms. Kenner replaced the original notice with a revised second notice and posted it on the City Hall doors on October 22, 2018. The revised notice was dated October 22, 2018 and omitted reference to “adjourning into executive session.”
The statement went on to say the city was in full compliance of the law.