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Council Meetings

As an important cornerstone of our democracy, council meetings serve as one of the best examples of public service and citizen engagement in the United States. In Georgia, a meeting is defined as gathering of a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency or any committee created by the governing body at which official business, policy, or public matter of the agency is formulated, presented, discussed, or voted upon. The term “agency” is very broadly defined in Georgia law and includes boards, committees, authorities, and departments, among others.
 
Unless the city’s charter or ordinance more specifically establishes the definition of a quorum, and many city charters do define a quorum, it is defined as a majority (50% plus one) of governing body members who must be present in order to legally and officially conduct business.
 

Types of Meetings


Different types of meetings entail different duties and expectations for city clerks.
 
Open Meetings
 
  • Regular Meeting: The city’s charter or ordinance prescribes the rules and procedures of regularly scheduled meetings. These meetings are held at a regular time and place to conduct routine city business.
  • Work Session: Work sessions are held before regular meetings to review and discuss items found on the regular meeting agenda. While no official business is usually conducted at a work session, these meetings are still open to the public and do not prohibit governing body members from taking official action.
  • Special (Called) Meeting: In most cities, the mayor or council can call for unscheduled special (or called) meetings. The city charter usually more specifically states who can call a meeting. Public notice must be given, and the meeting may only cover topics related to the specific purpose of why the meeting was called.
  • Emergency Meeting: Emergency meetings are those called with less than a 24 hour notice to act on item(s) related to an unforeseen event. Similar to special meetings, emergency meetings may only cover topics related to the specific purpose of why the meeting was called.
  • Public Hearing: Public hearings are held for the purpose of receiving citizen input on a particular item such as public improvement projects, ordinances, zoning changes, special exceptions to zoning, a proposed budget, annexation, closure of an alleyway, reading of a new ordinance, and text amendments to land development or zoning regulations. Check with your city’s mayor and council policies and procedures for specific rules on who may speak, in what order they may speak, and time limits for speaking.
Closed Meetings
Executive sessions are meetings closed to the public that must be convened for very specific, limited reasons such as:
 
  • Pending or potential litigation with legal counsel
  • Acquisition, disposal, or lease of real estate, including authorizing negotiations
  • Personnel issues to hire, compensate, evaluate, or take disciplinary action against a specific employee or specific employees
  • Meeting about records exempt from disclosure
  • Interviewing an applicant for the executive head of a department
  • Mediation proceedings (Note: All votes must be made in a public meeting and the records related to the mediation are subject to disclosure [O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3(a)(5)].)
 
A majority vote of the quorum present for the meeting is required to close a meeting. The presiding officer and all members of the governing body (if required by city policy) must execute and file an affidavit (included with the official minutes of the meeting) that states under oath the reason for closing the meeting. All votes must be taken in open session. For more details, refer to GMA’s publication, Government in the Sunshine: A Guide to Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws for Municipal Officials.
 
The following are not considered official governing body meetings. No one may discuss or act upon official actions during any of the below gatherings. If the primary purpose of gathering is to avoid open meetings law requirements, then the gathering is deemed a meeting where the city meet all notice, access, agenda, summary, and minutes requirements.
 
  • Inspecting facilities or property
  • Attending statewide or regional meetings or training
  • Meetings with state or federal legislative or executive officials at state or federal offices
  • Traveling together as a group
  • Attending social, civic, ceremonial, or religious events
All council meetings are open to the public except for executive session meetings. For more detailed information about open meetings, please refer to GMA’s publication, Government in the Sunshine: A Guide to Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws for Municipal Officials.
 
For more on the law behind closed meetings, see “Appendix A: Penalties for Non-Compliance” at the end of this chapter.
 

Meeting Notices


Meeting notice requirements vary based on the type of meeting. In the state of Georgia, you must follow specific meeting notice requirements for any governmental agency or committee appointed by the governing authority.
 
Regular Meetings. The city must provide at least one week advance notice of regular council and work session meetings by posting their time, place, and dates at the meeting location and on the city’s website (if it has one). The city may also provide meeting information to the media (usually local radio and television stations). Some cities annually adopt a regular council meeting / work session schedule and post that schedule at the meeting location, advertise it in the legal county organ prior to the New Year, and post it on the city’s website (if it has one).
 
Special or Emergency Meetings. Post the meeting notice at the meeting location and include the date, time, and location of the emergency meeting, the purpose of the meeting, and the items to be covered. The city must also provide the notice to the legal county organ (usually a newspaper) and by fax, telephone, or email to any other newspaper or media outlets located within the county (including radio and television stations that have specifically asked to be notified about emergency meetings).
 
Special or emergency meetings not held at the regularly posted time and place require more rigorous notice procedures.
 
  • Include the posting at least 24 hours in advance at the regular meeting place.
  • Provide oral notification at least 24 hours in advance of the called meeting to the newspaper which serves as the legal county organ.
  • In counties where the legal organ is published less than four times a week, give notice to any local media outlets that make a written request to be notified at least 24 hours in advance of the called meeting.
  • In the rare circumstance when a meeting must be held upon less than 24 hour notice, notify either the legal county organ or a newspaper with a circulation at least as high as that of the legal county organ as well as other media requesting notification.
 
All Other Meetings. For meetings that are not regular or emergency meetings, meeting notices must be posted in advance at the meeting location for at least 24 hours and include the date, time, and place of the meeting. In addition, the city will provide the legal county organ (usually a newspaper) a written or oral notice at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. The city must provide a copy of the meeting notice if requested by any radio station or newspaper in the county.
 

Agenda

 
Preparing the Meeting Agenda
An agenda outlines topics or items of business considered at a meeting, and they are prepared for all meetings of governmental agencies and committees. You will normally prepare the agenda and get it approved by the mayor and/or the city manager.
 
Many cities establish the format of the agenda and how items on it are placed by resolution or ordinance. If your city hasn’t established an official format, then establish a policy that describes the process of placing items on the agenda which may include:
 
  • The deadline for submitting an item
  • Any workflow process that needs following
  • The agenda’s format
Agenda Request Form Attachment #4: City of Gainesville
 
Consent Agenda
A consent agenda includes agenda items normally routine, pre-discussed (but not in violation of Open Meetings laws), and that require no further discussion. Group these items together on the agenda, and they can be approved by one motion and vote. The council may remove any item from the consent agenda and place it on the regular agenda if they want further discussion on the item.
 
Agenda Packet
Make sure you compile background material and supporting documents with each agenda item for the agenda packet while retracting any non-public, sensitive information before distributing. If there is a question of whether information is non-public and not subject to public disclosure, consult with your city attorney. Review with your city manager or the mayor, and then distribute the agenda packets to the governing body, manager, city attorney, media, and others as required by your local policy.
 
Note: Failure to include an item on the agenda which becomes necessary to address during the course of a meeting shall not preclude considering and acting upon the item.
 

Posting the Meeting Agenda
Post the meeting agenda at the meeting site as far in advance as possible during the two weeks prior to the meeting. Many cities also post the agenda and agenda packet on the city’s website. You may include the meeting notice and agenda in the same notice requirements.
 
Preparing for the Meeting
To set up the room:
 
  • Print copies of the agenda for the public. Your city should know how many agendas generally need to be printed based on average or expected attendance per meeting. If you do not project the agenda on a screen for attendees to view, then you need to ensure that there are enough hard copy agendas for everyone in the room. Even if your city uses agenda and meeting management software and projects the information on a screen, you still need to print hard copies in case some of the viewing public are unable to read what’s on the screen or do not have access to the information electronically with a computer or mobile device.
  • Distribute a sign-in sheet for attendees while they are arriving, or place a sign-in sheet at the room entrance. Some cities only require a sign-in sheet for citizens who will address the council, so check with your city’s specific procedures. Optionally, you may also provide comment cards for attendees.
  • Prepare the mayor and council seating with the gavel, nameplates, pen, paper, and water.
  • Set up and test electronic equipment (including any recording equipment) and have extra supplies available such as CDs and cassette tapes.
You may also consider having the city charter and ordinance book available for reference, along with “Roberts Rules of Order” or your city’s adopted policy on council meeting procedures.
 
Duties During the Meeting
Your duties at the meeting may include:
 
  • Taking a roll call to establish a quorum.
  • Recording and/or taking notes for the preparation of minutes.
  • Reading ordinances, resolutions, or proclamations submitted for action.
  • Coordinating the signing of official documents by the mayor and attesting them. You may also do this after the meeting.
  • Maintaining the notarized affidavit for closed executive sessions.
  • Knowing the basic parliamentary procedures of council.
Handling Motions
The Mayor will usually call for a motion to be made and then ask for the second. The Mayor will then ask if anyone wants to discuss the motion. After discussion, or if there is no discussion, then the Mayor will call for a vote.
 
Handling Recesses
The Mayor will notify attendees of a recess, adjourn the meeting, and reconvene it later. A recess does not always require that the Mayor call for a motion to recess. In your minutes, note the person making the motion to recess, the second, the time of recess, and when the meeting reconvenes.
 
Remember! Citizens and media representatives are allowed to record audio and/or video of council meetings or work sessions as long as their activity does not interfere with the conduct of the meeting.
 
Duties After the Meeting
Your duties after the meeting may include:
  • Preparing minutes, ordinances, and resolutions adopted at the meeting for signature by the Mayor.
  • Obtaining signatures on any contracts or agreements approved at the meeting.
  • Preparing a summary of any meeting subjects acted upon during the meeting along with listing the governing body members present at the meeting.
  • Making this summary available to the public within two business days of the meeting’s adjournment.
  • Distributing information about meeting action items to any appropriate city personnel.
  • Maintaining original copies of the approved minutes, ordinances, and resolutions in the city’s designated archival books.
  • Maintaining the original (or copy if no original is available) of any completely signed contracts or agreements.
  • Preparing draft minutes.
  • Distributing draft minutes to the governing body, city attorney, department heads, and any others who requested them.
For more about minutes, see the Minutes section.
 
Detailed information on Georgia’s sunshine laws can be found in GMA’s publication, Government in the Sunshine: A Guide to Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws for Municipal Officials.

Detailed information on meeting procedures can be found in GMA’s publication, Handbook for Georgia Mayor’s and Councilmembers, Part Two
 

Appendix A: Penalties for Non-Compliance


All actions taken during a meeting closed in violation of the law are void and can be set aside by a court if challenged within ninety days of discovery. Anyone who “knowingly and willfully” conducts or participates in a meeting without complying with every part of the law is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not in excess of $1,000.00.
 
Alternatively, a court may impose a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.00 against anyone who negligently conducts or participates in a meeting without complying with the law. The court also may impose a criminal fine or civil penalty not in excess of $2,500.00 for each additional violation committed within a year of the first violation. Additionally, public officials who participate in closed meetings in violation of the law can be subject to recall. Moreover, failure to give adequate notice can result in the invalidation of the proceedings, the issuance of legal injunctions and the requirement to pay the objecting party’s legal costs.
 
In addition, the Attorney General may bring a civil or criminal action to enforce compliance with the law. As with the Open Records Act, a government agency may be liable for the attorney’s fees of a party who brings a lawsuit to require compliance with the law if that agency has acted without substantial justification.
 
Lastly, the law does not require that any meetings be closed. Agencies may close meetings only as permitted by a specific exemption provided by law. A meeting may not be closed to the public except by a quorum of those agency members present. That portion of a meeting prior to closure by quorum must be open to the public. An agency must state the specific reasons for closure of the meeting in the official minutes, and the person presiding over such meeting must execute a notarized affidavit stating under oath that the closed portion of the meeting was devoted to matters within the exceptions provided by law and must identity the specific relevant exception.