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Attorney general: Conservancy meetings should be open

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Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the Conservancy's executive director, Debbie McCown, that the Conservancy should be legally held to the Open Meetings Act because "the funds the Conservancy receives are, by statute, expressly 'for the benefit of the public' and spent in a manner that the city of Atlanta might have spent them ... ."

The issue came up when the Conservancy's board shut the public out of a Nov. 18 meeting where board members voted on a proposal that includes expanding the park by 53 acres and building a six-story, 800-space parking deck in Piedmont Park.

A group of protesters, led by state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, attempted to voice their opposition to the parking deck. But the Conservancy board dodged the protesters by meeting in a secret location.

Afterward, Fort sought the opinion of the attorney general's office.

In a letter to Ritter, McCown defended the board's decision, writing that the Conservancy and its attorneys were "very confident that the Conservancy is not open to the Open Meetings Act."

McCown also wrote: "With regard to the November 18 board meeting, the Conservancy made the decision to close that particular meeting so that we could discuss the plan in a calm, deliberate, and reasonable environment. From past experience we knew that the presence of a small and sometimes disruptive group would be contrary to that purpose."

In the letter, McCown told Ritter that the Conservancy would keep its meetings open from then on.

Ritter wrote that he hopes "the Conservancy's willingness to abide by the Act will resolve any future disputes or the need for litigation regarding its duty to comply."

McCown says she hasn't consulted with her attorney yet, and had no comments about Ritter's opinion. However, she did say in an e-mail to CL that the "plan is justifiably a matter of keen public interest, and, therefore, we have decided that all future board meetings regarding this matter will be conducted in public."

But the issue isn't resolved just yet. Fort says he hopes to force the Conservancy board to reconvene and revote on the proposal in full view of the public.

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