Georgia AG fines hospital authority for violating open meetings law

The Georgia Attorney General's Office has fined the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County following an investigation into allegations the hospital authority had violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act, according to a report published by Valdosta Daily Times.

The attorney general's office ordered the hospital authority, which oversees Valdosta-based South Georgia Medical Center, to pay a $500 civil penalty to the state of Georgia and to participate in an open government training session with the attorney general's office.

Jennifer Colangelo, assistant attorney general, laid out the allegations in a March 3 letter to Walter New, general counsel for the hospital authority and SGMC. Ms. Colangelo accused the hospital authority and SGMC of violating the Georgia Opens Meetings Act by conducting an executive session before the meeting was scheduled to start, discussing matters in executive session that were not permitted, failing to properly notify the public of what issues being discussed in executive sessions and failing to properly notify the public of matters being voted on, according to the report. 

In Mr. New's subsequent response, the authority admitted it violated the Georgia Opens Meetings Act by meeting before the scheduled start time, according to the report. The authority also admitted it did not properly notify the public of topics being discussed in executive session, although, Mr. New said, the executive session agenda was made available at the beginning of the 8 a.m. meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m., the report states.

As for the allegation that the authority discussed unauthorized matters in executive session, Mr. New said the allegation "lacks sufficient specificity to permit any direct response," but "there are a number of matters which can be easily classified as operational to which the [open meetings] act itself does not apply," according to the report.  

Ms. Colangelo sent another letter to Mr. New last week, saying she realizes the hospital authority has already taken steps to bring its meeting notices into compliance with the open meetings act, but it has previously violated the open meetings act. She further stated, "If we were to proceed to litigation or prosecution, we would expect fines to be levied against any public officials who participated in these alleged violations should they prove to be true, as well as fees and costs against the hospital authority." However, she said she believes the matter can be resolved without litigation, and asked the hospital authority to sign a memorandum of understanding that admits to the violations and agrees to the settlement terms.

She gave the hospital authority 20 days to discuss the resolution of the matter.


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