Williams v. DeKalb County

Court: Georgia Supreme Court
Case Number: S19A1163
Decision Date: March 13, 2020
Case Type: Open Meetings
A Plaintiff sued the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners for violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act, when they voted to raise members’ salaries by 60 percent without providing proper notice of its intent to pass the pay increase. The trial court dismissed the claim.

The Plaintiff, a DeKalb County taxpayer and citizen, alleged that on Jan. 18, 2018, the DeKalb Board of Commissioners sent a notice to the county’s “legal organ” and other newspapers that it would hold a “special called” legislative retreat workshop at 9 a.m. the next day. Although a proposed pay increase did not appear on the meeting agenda, the board discussed it at the meeting. The meeting minutes did not reflect the discussion.
The board later placed an advertisement in the legal organ notifying the public of the board’s intent to consider the salary increase at a Feb. 27, 2018 board meeting. The advertisement ran for three consecutive weeks on Feb. 8, 15, and 22. However, the pay increase did not appear on the board’s pre-published agenda for the Feb. 27 meeting.

Plaintiff sued the county and the others, claiming the board violated the Open Meetings Act, thus invalidating the increase and subjecting the board members to civil and criminal penalties. He also claimed that although the General Assembly had given county governing authorities the power to increase their pay through O.C.G.A. § 36-5-24, the Georgia Constitution and the DeKalb County Organizational Act prohibited them from having that power. Plaintiff’s complaint asked for mandamus, declaratory, and injunctive relief, as well as civil and criminal penalties under the Open Meetings Act, and attorney fees and litigation costs.

Plaintiff argued that despite acting collectively, the commissioners as individuals were subject to civil penalties under the Open Meetings Act for participating in a meeting in violation of the Act, and that neither official immunity nor legislative immunity applies to an official who violates the Act.

The Court wrote “[w]e conclude that Plaintiffs’ complaint sufficiently alleges that the commissioners acted with actual malice in intentionally violating the agenda requirements of the Act – a criminal act. Consequently, taking the allegations of Plaintiff’s complaint as true for the purpose of reviewing the dismissal of the complaint, the commissioners are not entitled at this stage to official immunity from the penalty provisions of the Open Meetings Act. We also find no merit in the trial court’s determination that Plaintiff’s claim is barred by legislative immunity.” Therefore, the Court concluded that “the trial court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’ claim for civil penalties against the commissioners individually for violating the Open Meetings Act.”