An attorney whose practice is exclusive to local governments said Friday that he doesn’t know of any provision in Georgia law that allows for secret ballot voting as the Tift County Board of Commissioners has practiced when it appoints citizens to various volunteer boards, commissions and authorities.

Tommy Coleman, who served as mayor of Albany for 10 years, said he represents over 30 city and county governments and he’s “an advocate” of government entities he represents.

“I just think it violates the open meetings law,” Coleman said. “Those laws provide that all things will be open to the public for the free flow of information.”

For some years, commissioners have used the secret ballot process to appoint citizens to boards, commissions and authorities. The list of the names of applicants seeking such positions are listed on a ballot and then distributed to all commissioners for them to check the name of the candidate they choose. Commissioners don’t sign the ballots, which are then turned over to the county clerk. It is the normal practice for the county manager and county attorney to watch the clerk count the ballots. The commissioners then instruct the clerk to destroy the ballots.

Coleman, who said he doesn’t represent the Tift County Board of Commissioners, said that he is not the commission’s adversary, he was simply stating his opinion on open records and open meetings law.

Open meetings law includes the commission’s right to go into executive session for one or more of three reasons — to discuss personnel issues, for legal matters or to discuss the issues of real estate purchase or sell. Once the executive session meeting is over, however, commissioners are required to reconvene in a public meeting and vote by a show of hands.

“There’s no provision in the law that allows voting in executive session,” Coleman said. “By doing so (with the secret ballot), that is certainly tantamount to the same thing.”

Coleman said he is regularly questioned concerning Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, which include open meetings and open records regulations. He said he has led seminars and talked with city and county attorneys concerning the “complex laws that require some study on each individual set of circumstances.”

Coleman said he didn’t believe that Tift County commissioners intended to violate the law and suspects they have continued the practice because they “have always done it that way.”

“I know the motivation for doing this is that they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” Coleman said.

He said he was not aware of any elected commission, council or board in the state who continued to use the secret ballot method on appointments to boards, commissions and authorities.

Coleman also said that it was of his opinion that open records law requires that minutes of meetings reflect which elected official made a motion on an issue, seconded that motion and how each individual elected official voted on the issue.

“You have to have a record of what commissioners voted for what matter and you can’t avoid that by doing a secret ballot,” Coleman said. “It has to be in the minutes.”

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