Macon’s city attorney has concluded that Councilmen Charles Jones and Larry Schlesinger did not violate the Georgia Open Meetings Act last month, although they did meet and talk while the two of them constituted a quorum of a city committee.
Jones and Schlesinger, along with council President James Timley, made up the council’s Committee on Committees that assigned all 15 council members to six five-member standing committees. Jones and Schlesinger arrived at the Committee on Committees’ Dec. 15 meeting with pre-made and nearly identical lists, leading to allegations that they had conspired on their selections.
On Dec. 21, Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter sent a letter to Macon City Attorney Martha Welsh, asking for details on that meeting and any e-mails exchanged by council members regarding committee appointments.
“The two members in question strongly deny violating the Open Meetings Act,” Welsh wrote in her Dec. 30 response, and all 15 council members say they neither sent nor received e-mails about committee appointments.
“In retrospect, Schlesinger and Jones now realize their being together after the committee was formed could raise suspicions,” Welsh wrote. “Nevertheless, at the time, they were unaware that their conduct could be misconstrued or that mentioning committee assignments, which they deny doing, would be unlawful.”
Jones said Thursday he knew Welsh’s response to the state was in his mailbox, but he hadn’t yet read it. He said he had been truthful and was unconcerned with any further inquiries that might be made.
“The truth will always stand,” Jones said. “I know I didn’t do anything to violate anything, intentionally or any other way.”
Schlesinger said he has seen Welsh’s letter, and he said he thinks it “fairly represents the facts.”
Schlesinger had not, however, heard anything further about several complaints on the same issue apparently filed under the city’s ethics ordinance.
Welsh wrote to Ritter that Jones and Schlesinger acknowledge speaking to each other “multiple times” after the Committee on Committees was formed Dec. 13, but they say they didn’t talk to each other about committee appointments.
The two council members also met with Mayor Robert Reichert and Internal Affairs Director Keith Moffett for about 15 minutes, but they again said they didn’t discuss committee assignments, she wrote.
In the days before the Committee on Committees formed, Jones and Schlesinger had discussed a “shared desire” to keep committee assignments as similar as possible to their existing membership, taking into account the replacement of two council members, so it wasn’t surprising that they came to nearly identical conclusions, Welsh wrote.
She included a table showing committee assignments, including Jones’ and Schlesinger’s lists. They differed by only one name: Schlesinger sought to keep Councilman Henry Ficklin on the council’s Community Resources and Development Committee, while Jones favored Councilman Frank Tompkins for that slot. In the end, the seat went to Councilwoman Elaine Lucas.
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 except Councilman Rick Hutto got his or her first choice of committee assignments.
Welsh noted that the three-person vote on the final committee list was unanimous.
“The vote was valid and binding: it took place in a scheduled meeting that was duly noticed, open to the public, and in compliance with the Open Meetings Act in all respects,” she wrote.
Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner said last month he had heard of three people intending to file complaints under the city’s ethics code, but he hadn’t yet seen them. He didn’t return calls this week to answer questions about whether he had received those complaints, but he said from the start that the city ethics code probably wouldn’t apply. The city ethics code was written to keep council members from profiting illegally from their elected jobs.
Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, said Welsh’s letter has been received by the Open Government Mediation Program. That office, set up after a 1997 amendment of the Open Meetings Act, handles all allegations of violations and can start legal actions in the face of noncompliance.
“Whenever we receive a complaint, they go through this process,” Kane said.
Speed depends on caseload, however, and Ritter already has a full schedule, she said.
“We are still looking into it,” Kane said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.