The flap over whether two members of Macon City Council violated the state Open Meetings Act is getting bigger.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter sent a letter Wednesday to Macon City Attorney Martha Welsh, asking for details on the Dec. 15 meeting in which councilmen Charles Jones and Larry Schlesinger were accused of having “discussed and apparently resolved” council committee appointments by meeting illegally.
It’s the attorney general’s job to enforce the Open Meetings Act, through mediation or through civil or criminal actions. A fine of up to $500 is possible for flouting the open meetings law.
“The allegations raised in The Telegraph article, if true, constitute potentially serious violations of the Open Meetings Act,” Ritter wrote.
He said he’s looking for all available facts and not assuming a “knowing and willful” violation of the law. Ritter asked Welsh for a formal response within 10 days, along with any e-mails exchanged by council members, among themselves and the public, in official and private accounts, regarding committee appointments.
Schlesinger and Jones both said Wednesday afternoon that they hadn’t yet seen the letter. Schlesinger declined to comment until he hears specifics from Welsh, but Jones said he welcomed the inquiry,
“I’ve already said all I know about it,” Jones said.
He and Schlesinger, along with council President James Timley, constituted the “Committee on Committees” that assigned all 15 council members to six five-member standing committees. Council members filled out their preferences for committee assignments, and Timley urged that those be used as a major criterion in making selections. But in the Committee on Committees’ Dec. 15 meeting, Jones and Schlesinger arrived with premade and apparently identical lists.
It takes just two members of a three-member committee to make a quorum, and assembling a committee quorum without public notice is a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The two councilmen acknowledged having met beforehand, but they said they’d made up their lists individually. Jones and Schlesinger said they often meet on a friendly basis apart from any committee assignments.
Faced with accusations of collusion at the Dec. 15 meeting, they agreed with Timley to make some changes in their assignment lists. In the end, every council member but Councilman Rick Hutto got his or her first choice of committee assignments.
“When they brought that stuff up, we said, ‘All right, let’s go through all that right here, right now,’ ” Jones said. “And we went through it, in front of God and everybody.”
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas asked Welsh during that meeting if the committee selection process should continue, and Welsh said so long as the discussion and decision-making was done in public, there was no legal reason why not.
Jones said Wednesday that in his 12 years on council, this was his first time serving on the Committee on Committees, and he doesn’t recall the committee-assignment process ever being conducted openly before.
Apart from the attorney general’s inquiry, complaints that Jones and Schlesinger may have violated the city’s ethics ordinance appear to be under way as well.
Stanley Phillip Brown Jr., who ran unsuccessfully against Schlesinger this year for the Ward 3, Post 1 council seat, provided a copy of a city ethics complaint he said he has filed.
“I’ve had three people contact me and say they were going to file complaints,” Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner said.
Those complaints are filed with the chief administrator’s office, then forwarded to Faulkner. None, however, had made it to his desk by Wednesday evening.
Based on what he’s heard about the matter, however, Faulkner said he doesn’t think the ethics ordinance really applies.
“Something that everybody needs to do is to read that ordinance very carefully,” he said.
The city ordinance is really designed to keep council members from profiting from the position illegally, Faulkner said.
“It doesn’t really cover a lot of other things,” he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.