Sunshine Law concerns lead to Lee committee resignation

LEESBURG — Concerns about possible violations of Georgia’s Sunshine Law has led Lee County Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge to resign as a member of the board’s budget committee.

Muggridge and Commissioner Greg Frich, representing District 5, served on the county’s budget committee this year, meeting numerous times with department heads and constitutional officers to hammer out a budget that was presented to the entire board.

“I just felt it may be violating the Sunshine Law when Commissioner Frich and I were together, even if it was an incidental meeting,” Muggridge said. “There were times I would have wanted to have lunch and discuss the budget without calling a formal meeting.”

To do so, Muggridge said, would have been violating the law.

Lee County has three standing committees — budget, road and personnel.

David Hudson, an attorney in Augusta who is an authority on Georgia’s Sunshine Law and works with the Georgia Press Association, said Muggridge’s concerns are real.

“When a quorum of a committee meets and discusses official business, then it is a meeting under the law and it should be preceded by notice and should include the opportunity of the public to be present,” Hudson said.

“The logic behind this is that when a quorum is present, there are enough members engaged in the conversation that they can ensure the outcome of any particular matter within the jurisdiction of that committee.”

Hudson indicated it’s acceptable for fewer than a quorum of commission members to meet and discuss county business.

“While they may be able to persuade other members to their point of view, still it is necessary that other members of the commission join with the number to adopt any particular outcome.”

Hudson said a possible solution to Muggridge’s dilemma would be to increase the size of the budget committee to make it a committee-of-the-whole with all five commissioners and that way “ensure that one-on-one conversations do not violate the law.”

Muggridge raised that issue in previous meetings, but the idea of putting all five commissioners on a committee did not gain the support of the board.

The issue came to a vote this week when the board considered an amendment to eliminate the standing board committees. That measure failed to pass by a unanimous vote.

Muggridge voted with the majority, saying he was “not so sure the way we do this is perfect, but I don’t have a better way at this point.”

Frich will remain as chairman of the budget committee, whose work is mostly finished for this calendar year. Should the need arise for the budget committee to reconvene, Muggridge said he will appoint a replacement.

Ed Duffy, commissioner for District 3 and former chairman, acknowledged Muggridge’s concerns, but said the current system works.

“Every county has standing committees,” Duffy said. “Bill (Williams) and I were on the budget committee for four years. The law says only that discussion of budget problems or issues requires a called meeting. If we ever had a discussion, we would call a meeting.

“The worst thing you can do is violate the law and get caught, naturally. We have never been cited in Lee County.

“But you’ve got to be careful,” Duffy added. “We never really discussed the budget in a social gathering. Yeah, you can slip once in a while and ask a question, but if you need to discuss anything about money, you need to have a called meeting.”