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Was it legal for Conservancy to hide vote on parking deck?

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Rather than face a pack of riled-up protesters, the board of the Piedmont Park Conservancy decided to close the doors on a Nov. 18 meeting in which members voted on a proposal to build a parking deck in Piedmont Park. Not only did the board close the doors, but it also moved the meeting to an undisclosed location.

The board, in other words, hid.

The protesters, led by state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, protested anyway, while the board voted in secret to build the six-story, 800-space parking deck.

Twelve days later, Fort wrote to Attorney General Thurbert Baker, asking for "help in addressing the Piedmont Park Conservancy's disregard of the state's Open Meetings Act."

Fort also said that the Conservancy was an instrument of city government, maintaining and operating Piedmont Park. Therefore, Fort wrote, the Conservancy is subject to the same open meeting laws as governments.

On Dec. 2, Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter wrote to the Conservancy's executive director, Debbie McCown, saying that the Open Meetings Act applies to "nonprofit organizations if they supply governmental services on behalf of a government."

McCown told CL that her group isn't under contract to perform any duties for the city.

She also said, "Based on our counsel, we're a private nonprofit and all of our funds, almost all, are from private donations. So, because of that, we are not subject to the Open Meetings Act."

The Conservancy has raised more than $17 million for landscape improvements and off-duty policemen at the city-owned park, however.

And the Conservancy's website says, "In 1992, Piedmont Park Conservancy established a Memorandum of Understanding with the city of Atlanta, making official the public-private partnership and mutual goals to rehabilitate and maintain Piedmont Park."

Ritter asked McCown to respond to Fort's allegations by Dec. 8. McCown says the Conservancy's attorney was preparing that response as CL went to press.

If the attorney general does determine that the Conservancy violated the Open Meetings Act, the Conservancy won't be able to close its meetings in the future.

Fort hopes such a determination also will make the Conservancy release the minutes and votes of the Nov. 18 meeting. And he wants to force the board to reconvene and re-vote on the parking deck proposal, in full view of the public.

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