You have requested an opinion of this office regarding the applicability of the Georgia Open Meetings Act, O.C.G.A. §§ 50-14-1 through 50-14-6, to certain meetings conducted by the Dougherty County Board of Education. In particular, you indicate that the school board has a practice of having meetings to inquire into complaints about school personnel from teachers, union representatives, parents or other members of the public, and thereafter holding meetings with the affected individual to discuss these complaints. You ask whether either of these type meetings may be closed to the public.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the open meetings law must be broadly construed to effect its remedial and protective purposes. Atlanta Journal v. Hill, 257 Ga. 398, 399 (1987). The law was enacted in the public interest to protect both individuals and the public from "closed door" politics as well as potential abuse of individuals and misuse of power. Id. Consequently, any exception to the law urged by one presumably subject to its provisions must be carefully scrutinized.

Beyond question, the school board is subject to the Open Meetings Act, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(a)(1)(B), and thus in order to close either of the meetings which you describe a specific exception must exist. With respect to the first type of meeting, where the board hears complaints of interested individuals, there is no exception in the law and the public may not be excluded from such a meeting. See O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3.

A somewhat different analysis is required for the second meeting which you describe since it could arguably include disciplinary action against school personnel. The Open Meetings Act does permit closure of a meeting in accordance with the statutory procedure, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-4, when a public body is discussing or deliberating upon disciplinary action or dismissal of a public officer, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3(6). Significantly, only the discussion or deliberation phase of the meeting may be closed, and not any part of the meeting which is devoted to receiving evidence or hearing argument on pending charges. Id. Moreover, the focus of the deliberation or discussion must be disciplinary action or dismissal, not merely a general exchange of information about a particular event.

Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court examined an analogous situation in Red & Black Publishing Co. v. Board of Regents, 262 Ga. 848, 854 (1993), in which the student newspaper sought access to student disciplinary hearings and records. In that case, the Court held that it is the policy of this state to promote openness even in sensitive proceedings where public access may prove unpleasant, difficult, and occasionally harmful. Accord 1983 Op. Att'y Gen. 83-9.

Based upon the foregoing analysis, it is my unofficial opinion that a school board may not close to the public any meeting devoted to the airing of grievances about school personnel by interested members of the public. Further, it is my unofficial opinion that should the school board conduct an inquiry into the actions of school personnel any evidence or argument presented to the board must be held in an open meeting, but the board may close that portion of the meeting consisting of deliberation or discussion of disciplinary action or dismissal of the employee. Closure of the meeting may take place only upon proper compliance with the statutory meeting closure provisions.

Prepared by:

Assistant Attorney General