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Attorney general to mediate between press and school system

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Georgia's top lawyer has agreed to look at The Albany Herald's request on behalf of the public to access Superintendent Joshua Murfree's proposed contract -- which has been denied by the school system -- before the board votes to accept it next week.

On Jan. 29, The Herald requested both the contracts of current Superintendent Sally Whatley and the new superintendent when hired by the board, who at that time had not been officially hired.

Dougherty County School System Attorney Tommy Coleman partially denied the request arguing that the system could not release the contract of the new superintendent -- who hadn't been named at that point -- until after the board adopts it because it would be part of the negotiation process. Whatley's contract was released.

In an attempt to resolve the issue out of court, The Herald contacted

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office, which handles Open Records disputes through a government mediation program, and asked the office to look at the situation.

Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said that Baker was granted authority by the General Assembly for his office to handle informal disputes between citizens and the government.

"In his first year after taking office, Attorney General Baker pressed for legislation to amend Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records acts to allow his office to help citizens and government agencies resolve their disputes without resorting to the time or expense of litigation," Willard said. "Upon receiving a complaint from a Georgia citizen, our attorneys work with both the citizen and the local government to ensure that access to public records or government meetings is provided in accordance with Georgia's Sunshine laws."

Wednesday, the AG's office requested documentation from The Herald relevant to the issue of the contract.

That contract is the final chapter in story that has drawn the ire of the community on both sides of the issue.

In justifying The Herald's effort to get the state involved, Herald Editor Jim Hendricks says that scrutiny, especially when it involves spending taxpayer money, is a necessity when dealing with government and that the public deserves to see the contract before the board votes on it.

"When a government board or agency tries to hide documents from the public that the public should have access to, there's usually justification in the public being suspicious," Hendricks said. "It's a lot easier to cut deals behind closed doors when you can avoid the scrutiny. The history on this particular hiring process speaks volumes toward that."

On April 1, The Herald contacted the school system via e-mail asking school system officials to justify their denial of the documents after The Herald reviewed the Open Records Act and saw no exception for employee contracts -- pending or adopted.

In response, Coleman cited the Georgia Open Meetings Law, which states when a government is allowed to go into closed-door sessions.

According to that law, "a government agency may meet in executive session to discuss and deliberate on the appointment and compensation of a public officer."

With that in mind, Coleman said that it was his legal opinion that "documents received or generated by the board during this process would not be subject to required public disclosure until completion of the negotiation."

The Georgia Open Records Act has a list of documents that governments can keep secret from the public, but according to David Hudson, the legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association, employee contracts are not on the list.

"The document is an open record," Hudson wrote to The Herald in an e-mail Wednesday. "There is no exception to allow it to be kept secret. The public should have a chance to be heard on terms of the draft proposal."

The school system took a similar approach when Whatley was hired in 2001, following then Superintendent John Culbreath's announcement that he would be retiring.

Whatley, who was deputy superintendent in charge of curriculum at the time, was promoted to the superintendent position following Culbreath's resignation and a 95-minute executive session by the board -- a move that prompted criticism from the public and the media who believed a search should have been conducted.

During that meeting, Whatley accepted a three-year contract worth $115,000 annually, which was released immediately after it was accepted. Nine years later, Whatley is retiring making a $149,000 base salary with benefits boosting her total compensation package to around $175,000.

Negotiations between board members and Murfree continue. Chairman David Maschke has said that he provided Murfree with several sample contracts to consider or that he could prepare his own contract for consideration by the board.

Maschke told The Herald that Murfree had submitted his contract proposal to him March 30. Board member Emily Jean McAfee told The Herald that the board was preparing a counter-offer to Murfree's proposed contract that will incorporate suggested content from the board following Friday's special-called board meeting to discuss Murfree's proposed contract.