As a journalist, I get a bad taste in my mouth every time a governing body goes into Executive Session. Not that the lawful exceptions to the Open Meetings Act are bad. I can understand going into Executive Session to discuss acquiring or disposing of real estate and discussing the settlement of lawsuits. I can also understand discussing evaluation and discipline of personnel, and consulting with an attorney on a pending or potential lawsuit.
But what causes the bad taste is the potential for the governing body to discuss something that is not allowed to be done in Executive Session. My prime example of that came in 1989, when the Henry County Board of Commissioners illegally discussed and formulated the Henry County Police Department in Executive Session. The Henry County Sheriff took them to court over it, and the judge found they had acted illegally. Unfortunately, there was little he could do other than slap them on the wrist and order them to meet again in open session. They did, and even though the majority of people who attended the meeting spoke against forming the police department, the commissioners’ minds were already made up and they formed it anyway.
That’s why I was initially glad to see Upson County and the City of Thomaston agree to negotiate the LOST split and service delivery in open meetings. But after having attended all of the LOST negotiation meetings, I’ve come to the opinion that the only way this issue will get settled - short of an outside judge stepping in and making the decision, which this may yet boil down to - is for representatives of the county and the cities to meet in closed door sessions and not say anything to the news media or residents until an agreement on LOST and service delivery is reached.
When I first started covering the occasional meetings between the Board of Commissioners and the Thomaston City Council, I discovered what many people here already knew – there is no love lost between the two boards. Yet what amazed me was that after I would write the story about the meeting, describing the discord between the two governing bodies, I would get admonished by one side or the other, both claiming that industries looking for new homes read newspapers and that reading about the lack of harmony between the governments would make us look bad. My answer to that then and now is, “You don’t want to look bad? Then put your differences away and work together for a change.” Of course, the answer I got from either side was always, “We’re trying to work with them, but they don’t want to work with us.”
After having covered the LOST negotiation meetings for the last five weeks, I believe it is safe to say that both governments have wasted the taxpayers’ time and money, because nothing of any real substance has been accomplished. Instead, those of us attending have been witness to the two boards sniping at each other and playing up their own sides for the “benefit” of the audience.
The county initially made an offer to keep the LOST percentages the same if the city would agree to enter into negotiations on payment of services provided by the county. The city expressed its agreement with the offer, but the county apparently felt once the city had the LOST percentages taken care of, that the city would not follow through on the service negotiations, and the county backed out of the agreement. So basically the two sides are back to where they started, and with only two weeks left before the issue goes to mediation, it is highly doubtful that in open session they will come to an agreement. It might not happen in closed session either, but at least those of us in attendance would not have to continue to suffer through the obvious dislike the two governing bodies have for each other.
That’s why I say they need to go behind closed doors and work it out, and have a “gag order” on both sides not to say anything until the agreement is reached. Either that, or admit they aren’t going to come to an agreement and go ahead and send it to the judge to decide. Either way, enough is enough.