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Augusta continues to refuse release of fire chief candidate names



AUGUSTA, Ga. – The city of Augusta says the names of four finalists for fire chief are off limits to the public, but guidelines from a state expert say otherwise.

The Augusta Commission has a  closed-door legal session Tuesday called to discuss “personnel.”

When the commission advertised it would hold closed-door interviews with the finalists last week, The Chronicle filed an open records request for their names and current cities.

The request – sent to Administrator Odie Donald, Mayor Hardie Davis, General Counsel Wayne Brown and Human Resources Director Anita Rookard – was denied Friday.

Augusta Law Department paralegal Julia Lugo sent the response. The Chronicle asked Lugo who wrote it. Lugo did not respond.

Several on the 10-member Augusta Commission said they had received the list of names last week, but were warned not to release them.

Another city official, who questioned the legality of closing the interviews to the public, released the widely-circulated list of the four names and cities to The Chronicle.

On the list were four fire officers with lengthy careers in the public sector, including one with Augusta ties.

Sterling Jones retired from the Atlanta Fire Department before spending five years with Augusta Fire Department as a firefighter, fire marshal and a deputy chief.

Jones also was recently named interim fire chief after two months on the job with the South Fulton, Ga., fire department, according to a new release. The south Fulton County city is Donald’s former employer.

Also finalists were DeKalb County Deputy Chief Antonio Burden; Newport News, Va., Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Jackson and longtime Philadelphia Deputy Fire Chief Carl Randolph Sr.

The publication of the names last week irked several commissioners and prompted others to wonder who selected the list of four, Commissioner John Clarke said.

“It upset a lot of people that somebody told you that information,” Clarke said, particularly since they (commissioners) already knew when the list is culled to three, “the names have to become public.”

The city’s rationale for not releasing the names is “to protect the candidate from retaliation from their current employer,” he said.

Clarke said he believed it was the city’s plan to release the names of finalists before a hire was made.

David Hudson, lawyer for the Georgia Press Association, had the Georgia First Amendment Foundation send The Chronicle basic guidelines for how Georgia governments should handle job openings.

The Georgia Open Records Act requires the release of the names and application materials of three or more finalists when a government is hiring an “agency head,” such as a university president, the guidelines stated.

If requested, the government must release the information at least 14 days before the decision is made, the guidelines said. In addition, a finalist may withdraw his name from consideration before the decision, but the government must provide information about the finalist replacing the withdrawn candidate.

Under 2012 revisions of the law, local governments may close group interviews of candidates to the public – as the commission did last week.

But the laws about closed-door interviews and the release of finalist names only apply to agency head positions, according to the guidelines. Agency heads would include a superintendent of schools, for instance, but not a school principal, they state.

If a fire chief or other staffer is not considered an agency head, the information is considered an open record, the guidelines state.

The city’s Friday denial of The Chronicle’s request for the names and current cities of the four finalists cited lengthy passages from the Georgia Open Records Act. Lugo did not respond to a request for the specific exception that allowed the city to withhold the information. Donald referred the question back to the law department. The state law requires a government state the specific reason.

The city’s response said confidential evaluations or examinations of employees can’t be released, but The Chronicle did not request an evaluation or exam.

The city’s response stated that candidates for agency head may with draw their information before a decision is made and that an agency can’t dodge disclosure by hiring a private firm to conduct the search.

The guidelines also state that governments that believe they can release information on just one finalist – but this is “wrong.” They must meet the minimum of three or release them all, it said.