Two of the state’s leading authorities on the Georgia Open Meetings Act are questioning whether the Douglas County Board of Commissioners violated state law by discussing in a closed-door meeting reimbursing Probate Judge Christina Peterson for legal expenses.

The BOC reached a consensus to reimburse Peterson for $10,000 in legal fees in an executive session on Sept. 13, according to District 4 Commissioner Ann Jones Guider. Documents obtained via an Open Records Request by the Sentinel show the county issued a $10,000 check to Peterson three days later.

Attorney David E. Hudson of Augusta-based Hull Barrett P.C. serves as general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and specializes in open meetings and open records law.

Hudson said the Open Meetings Act allows executive session meetings to discuss or deliberate on the compensation of a county employee. But he said a discussion about reimbursing a constitutional officer such as the probate judge is not a “compensation” issue but rather a “policy decision” by the BOC.

Attorney-client discussions are also allowed in executive session meetings, but Hudson said he doesn’t believe that exception is applicable in this case either.

“Closed sessions can take place for attorney-client communications, but what you have here appears to be just a discussion of a commercial transaction and how much would be paid,” Hudson said. “That should be in an open meeting.”

Jim Zachary is editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. Zachary said he also believes the BOC should have discussed the reimbursement to Peterson in a public meeting.

“Executive session privilege in Georgia is very limited,” Zachary said. “County officials can meet behind closed doors to discuss the terms of real estate transactions, actual or pending litigation or certain personnel issues. Public policy cannot be discussed behind closed doors. Talking about whether to pay legal fees for a judge charged with 18 ethics violations does not seem to fall within any of these exceptions to the Georgia Open Meetings Act.”

Zachary continued: “From what I understand, the closed meeting was not to discuss legal strategy, it was merely about whether to pay legal fees and if that is the case, that is something that should only be deliberated in an open, public meeting. The business being transacted by elected officials is the people’s business and the money being spent is public money. The public has the right and the need to know. People with nothing to hide, simply don’t hide.”

The Sentinel also asked Hudson to look at the separate issue of whether the BOC’s agreement behind closed doors was binding without a public vote.

Hudson said that typically payments agreed to by consensus in a closed session must be voted on publicly in an open meeting.

However, Douglas County’s Code of Ordinances gives broad authority to a few county officials to make certain payments without approval by the BOC in an open meeting.

After looking at the county’s ordinance, Hudson said he doesn’t believe the reimbursement itself violated state law.

The code of ordinances allows requisitions of $10,000 or less to be approved by County Procurement Director Dawn Evers. Requisitions from $10,000.01 to $25,000 can be approved by County Administrator Sharon Subadan. And most requisitions from $25,000.01 to $50,000 can be approved by Subadan and Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones.

Jones wrote in an emailed response to the Sentinel that the “county has a rigorous requisition and financial control process.”

“Requisitions similar to your inquiry are initiated by the elected official involved, and typically fall within the domain of the county administrator,” Jones wrote. “While I cannot reveal the content of any matters discussed in executive session, which the law deems privileged, I can tell you any discussion would not have resulted in a vote.”

Jones did not respond to a question about the possible Open Meetings Act violation for discussing the reimbursement in executive session.

While the Peterson vote came behind close doors, the BOC voted in a public meeting last year when dealing with a similar situation. On April 21, 2020, the BOC voted to settle a complaint from a citizen saying District 2 Commissioner Kelly Robinson violated her First Amendment rights by blocking her from his public Facebook page. That settlement included a $2,500 payment to resident Brenda Bohanan and her attorneys.