Attorneys state positions on Open Records as it applies to fire chief candidates
AUGUSTA, Ga. – The public’s right to know took the spotlight Monday in Superior Court as an attorney for local news operations squared off with attorneys for the city of Augusta over information about candidates for fire chief.
Several news organizations had sought the names and background information about the four candidates interviewed by the city April 15. In response to a request under the state’s Open Records Act, the city released the name of only a single candidate – Antonio Burden, one of DeKalb County Fire-Rescue’s deputy chiefs.
In responses to the lawsuit filed April 26, city attorneys contend that Burden is the only qualified candidate for the position and that his is the only name that must be released.
Augusta attorney David Hudson, representing The Augusta Chronicle, the Augusta Press, WJBF-TV and WRDW-TV, argued that the city not only failed to provide the information requested under the Open Records Act, but it also failed to respond within the three-day window as required by law. When the deadline passed, the city forfeited any chance to claim an exception to the Open Records Act, Hudson said.
City attorney Samuel Meller countered that the requirement for the city was to release the information about the best qualified candidate, and the city did that.
Judge Jesse Stone, who said he will rule by Wednesday, asked Meller who made the decision in executive session to reduce the four interviewed candidates to a single candidate. General Counsel Wayne Brown jumped in to explain that no action was taken in executive session. The other people interviewed last month are no longer contenders for the job, and if Burden is not hired, the process must start over, he said.
Stone also pressed the media attorney to present a case in which an injunction was granted as a solution to a violation of the Open Record Act. The media is seeking an injunction to the vote to hire Burden until 14 days after the full information requested is provided.
The 14-day provision is key because interviews were done behind closed doors and the public gets time to learn about candidates and express their opinion, Hudson said. He didn’t know whether there are other cases of injunctions because no other local government has been so brazen in violating the law, Hudson said.
Augusta’s previous fire chief, Chris James, retired Dec. 2 after eight years as the leader of the city’s second largest department. Shaw Williams is the current interim chief of the fire department.