Judge to decide who pays attorney who won Augusta public records fight

The city of Augusta’s legal department on Wednesday argued against paying court bills from news organizations that successfully sued the city earlier this year to cover the top candidates for the fire chief’s job.

Regardless of who the judge said will pay the court costs, the public learned in May who the four finalists were supposed to replace former fire chief Chris James and who were and were considered top contenders in terms of experience, education and training. It turned out that the city’s “only best qualified” candidates who were pushed for and eventually hired did not meet the minimum score for an interview.

According to the city’s arguments on Wednesday, while the state’s Open Records Act can allow anyone to sue a government agency, it is only the state attorney general who can properly bring a case on behalf of the people; now that the matter is closed, no legal fees can be claimed; and / or there is no evidence of infringement so that you are not entitled to compensation.

Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson responded that the city was trying to argue that no citizen can attempt to enforce the Open Records Act, which specifically gives everyone the right to access public records. It contradicts 40 years of case law in Georgia, Hudson said.

“That would be quite a precedent, wouldn’t it?” said Judge Jesse Stone, who issued the May 5 order of the Richmond County Superior Court found the city had violated the Open Records Act.

The case stems from the resignation of James, the former fire chief, in December 2020. The city signed a contract with GovHR USA to find the qualified candidates to lead the approximately 400-strong department. Commissioners conducted private interviews with candidates on April 15, as Georgia law allows.

On April 21, the city announced that there was a single “best qualified” candidate, Antonio Burden, and released information about his qualifications. The city refused to release information about other candidates. Five days later, The Augusta Press, The Augusta Chronicle, and WJBF filed lawsuits, and WRDW later joined. She tried to stop a planned vote on the fire chief on May 11 pending full disclosure of the other candidates’ information.

Stone ruled on May 5 that the law required the city to submit records on three qualified candidates and not vote on replacements for the boss until 14 days after the information was released. The city complied with the order later that day and decided not to appeal. Hudson then filed a motion for attorney fees that can be awarded under the Open Records Act if the law is violated.

On Thursday, City Attorney Sam Meller and General Counsel Wayne Brown argued again that the city was legally justified in releasing information only about the one candidate the commissioners believed was the most qualified.

Hudson said if the commissioners met to determine a single best candidate for the job, they would have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Such a decision must be made publicly, and there has never been a public vote on who is the only candidate, he said. City guides should not be allowed to manipulate the process to hold a secret ballot and withhold information about the other qualified candidates, argued Hudson.

Meller and Brown countered that the decision of who is the best qualified candidate should be made alone, not the media or the court. The commissioners did their job properly and believed they were complying with the Open Records Act when they released records on their best-qualified candidate, Burden, Meller and Brown said.

The city complied with Stone’s order by providing information on three candidates and withholding one vote for 14 days.

Hudson’s first filing for attorney fees was $ 9,500. Additional legal work in response to later arguments from the city’s legal team after Stone’s May 5 ruling increased its fees to $ 13,000, he said.

Stone said he would deliberate the matter.

Local news outlets covered the three candidates, along with Burden, who the public knew nothing about before the lawsuit. Of the four seasoned fire service veterans, Burden did not score enough in terms of qualifications, education and training to warrant an interview. City administrator Odie Donald II asked for Burden to be included on the interview list. The highest-scoring candidate was Sterling P. Jones, a former member of the Augusta Fire Department leadership who has served as deputy chief of South Fulton County Fire and Rescue since 2020.

On May 25, the commissioners voted to appoint Burden, the former deputy chief of DeKalb County Fire and Rescue, as the new fire chief.

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