This one should have been a no-brainer. At least the court’s 4-3 ruling leaned in the direction of public accountability.
The Georgia Supreme Court, in a decision that should be heard and heeded in the chambers of every council, commission and public board in the state, ruled Monday that it’s not enough to put the results of a public governing body’s votes on the record. The breakdown of that vote must be part of the record as well.
It’s a significant victory for government transparency in a state where officials give endless lip service to that principle, then sometimes seem to do everything in their power and within the law — and sometimes at or beyond the edge of it — to circumvent it.
The case was Cardinale v. City of Atlanta, and it involved a suit filed against the city government for failing to record, and subsequently refusing to reveal, the breakdown of a vote taken at a 2010 city council retreat.
We see this kind of closing of the political ranks all the time, such as a legislative caucus deciding behind closed doors to support or bury a bill — like, for instance, a public vote on Sunday alcohol sales — and refusing to say who voted which way. But while such bunker politics can be infuriating, it’s a different matter from votes taken in what are supposed to be open meetings.
(The notorious “unrecorded voice vote” tradition in Alabama has been a political accountability dodge for so long that it might have contributed to voters deciding on a political overhaul in 2010.)
Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, writing for the majority, articulated the philosophy of government transparency:
“While the [state’s Open Meetings] act provides for public access to agency meetings, it also fosters openness by, among other things, requiring agencies to generate meeting minutes that are open to public inspection so that members of the public unable to attend a meeting nonetheless may learn what occurred … To adopt a contrary holding that agencies possess discretion to decline to record the names of those voting against a proposal or abstaining in the case of a non-roll-call vote would potentially deny non-attending members of the public access to information available to those who attended a meeting.”
Attorney Dan Grossman, writing in the Atlanta Progressive News, raised the compelling question of why this battle was worth fighting through the courts in the first place: “Matthew Cardinale gave the city many opportunities to do the right thing voluntarily; instead, the city chose to spend public money defending a position that was never in the public’s interest.”
This open government stuff isn’t rocket science, and rarely if ever should questions of public accountability by public officials come down to legal or semantic subtleties. “Who voted how?” is a pretty simple question.