This week, Lee County Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge showed a great deal of foresight in avoiding a potential political bear-trap.
Serving as one of two commissioners on the county board’s budget committee, he realized there was a chance that he could someday inadvertently violate the Georgia Open Meetings Law. Rather than run that risk, he stepped down from the committee.
To be perfectly clear, that’s not the case. Someone who simply scanned Thursday’s Page 1 headlines might have gotten the impression a violation had already occurred, but the fact is that Muggridge and Commission Greg Frich, who chairs the budget committee, made it through the preparation for the current budget year without a problem.
The sticking point is this: When you have a two-member committee, every conversation the two of you have about the area of government your committee is concerned with — regardless of how casual the conversation might be — is an official committee meeting because a quorum of that committee is present. In fact, the same thing applies of two members of a three-member budget committee were to have a conversation about county spending.
Muggridge was troubled by his duties on the committee because he felt he could not communicate with Frich about budgetary matters without it being considered an official meeting of the committee. Even bumping into each other in a restaurant could put Muggridge and Frich at risk of violating the Sunshine Law if spending issues were discussed, or if someone thought they were discussing budgetary issues and complained.
Muggridge had hoped that the commission would consider having all five members serve on the budget committee. That would have allowed one-on-one discussions to take place without constituting a quorum. The commission decided against doing away with the structure of its three standing committees — budget, road and personnel.
Rather than serve as a chairman of a commission who couldn’t speak with the chairman of the commission’s budget committee without advertising what would be an official meeting, Muggridge decided to step down from the committee, whose work has been completed for the year. Should a budget issue arise that the committee would need to address, Muggridge says he will appoint a commissioner to serve with Frich.
“If I remained on the budget committee,” Muggridge said, “I would have remained vigilant and not have ever violated the Sunshine Law.” But he believes his action is a demonstrative plan to remove the risk of his ever violating the law.
Was Muggridge just being overly cautious? No. Attorney David Hudson, who has worked with the Georgia Press Association for years and is well versed on all aspects of Georgia’s open government laws, confirmed that Muggridge’s concerns are valid.
When a quorum of a committee meets and discusses business, it is an official meeting, Hudson explained. If that meeting is not property advertised, it’s a violation of the law. Muggridge and Frich are the only members of the committee, so any meeting where county budget issues were discussed would be a violation.
In further explaining his stance, Muggridge said, “My personality is such that I highly value face-to-face communications. I arrived at the conclusion that the value the voters of Lee County received from my membership of the budget committee was less than the value of my ability to communicate face-to-face frequently with all commissioners.”
Muggridge said he plans to step down from all standing committees in an abundance of caution, though he remains temporarily on the personnel committee.
“There are pending issues, including health insurance changes, that must be addressed and I believe at this time my contributions in this area are of greater value than the communication restrictions,” he said.
While Muggridge’s stand may be more stringent that necessary, it’s an admirable approach. It’s an approach that should be viewed as the right thing to do.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board