LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Georgia sunshine law expert said it is unclear if the controversial actions of Gwinnett's commission to move forward earlier this month with a request for proposals for the county airport without a formal vote violated the law.
But in matters of public interest, officials should err on the side of sunshine, said Hollie Mannheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
"The point of the open meetings act is to allow the public to access to (sic) its public officials and how they conduct business," Mannheimer wrote in an email. "In this case, it is unclear whether a vote already had been taken on this issue or a new vote was required. To the extent a new vote was required, it should have taken place in the context for a public meeting.
"Any time a public agency takes a vote, it must do so in public," she said. "Private discussions among the various members of a public agency create, at a minimum, the perception of violations of the open meetings act."
Last week, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash revealed a "consensus" among three board members to move forward in the airport process.
Commissioners Mike Beaudreau, Shirley Lasseter and Lynette Howard said the matter was clear in May, when the three passed a motion to allow the proposals to include a plan to allow commercial flights out of Briscoe Field. But Nash said a consultant's report that gave four options for moving forward should have required another public vote.
She did not allege wrongdoing but said officials should be particularly mindful of sunshine laws in light of the ethics controversies that resulted in the resignation of the former chairman and indictment of a commissioner last year.
"This is a bigger issue than just the airport to me," Nash said at Tuesday's Board of Commissioners hearing. "We are falling into a trap of doing things the way that has been done in the past. ... The least you can do is hear it publicly so, no matter what people think about the issue, at least they don't have to say it was done in a back room."
The commissioners said they did not intend to rush the decision, only to restart an undertaking that had stalled over the past year. They said they were offended by the accusations.
At Tuesday's meeting, they took a vote to formalize the "consensus," moving forward with the speediest of the consultant's three options, which could lead to the county choosing a private operator for Briscoe Field by the end of the year.