You have requested an unofficial opinion concerning the applicability of the Georgia Open Meetings Law, O.C.G.A. §§ 50-14-1 through 50-14-6, to proceedings held before the county board of tax assessors and county board of equalization. As I understand the situation, the equalization board has taken the position that it is exempt from the provisions of the open meetings law under the judicial exception to its application. The board cites its appointment by the grand jury in support of this view. See O.C.G.A. § 48-5-311(c)(2). As set forth within, it is my opinion that both the board of tax assessors and the board of equalization are subject to and must comply with the open meetings law.

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.

The open meetings law applies to any agency of government, except the courts and the General Assembly. Coggin v. Davey, 233 Ga. 407, 411 (1975). "Agency" is defined, inter alia, as "[e]very department, agency, board, bureau, commission, authority, or similar body of each such county, municipal corporation, or other political subdivision of the state." O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(a)(1)(C). The two boards at issue here would necessarily fall within this definition and would therefore be required to hold open meetings under O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(b), unless an exception is shown. No exception appears applicable here.

The source of the equalization board's view appears to be the connection between the board and the grand jury. In Kilgore v. R.W. Page Corp., 261 Ga. 410 (1991), the Georgia Supreme Court addressed whether a coroner's inquest constituted a meeting within the meaning of the open records law. In resolving this question, the Court compared the law enforcement functions to the coroner's functions. The Court found that the coroner's functions were too dissimilar to entitle the coroner to the exemption afforded to law enforcement. Following this approach to the situation at hand would likely lead to similar results. Grand juries have the duty to examine and make presentments respecting criminal conduct, as well as the obligation to inquire into various activities of local officials. O.C.G.A. §§ 15-12-74, -12-71(b). By contrast, an equalization board is empowered to hear and determine appeals of assessments and to take action to assure uniformity in property valuation. O.C.G.A. § 48-5-311(d). Local boards of equalization, therefore, are entities altogether distinct from grand juries. Their actions are more akin to civil adjudications rather than criminal matters which are the province of the grand jury. See 1980 Op. Att'y Gen. U80-44.

Moreover, the express exceptions to the open meetings law counsel against a conclusion that the board is exempt. The General Assembly expressly excluded certain areas from the application of the open meetings law. O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3. The General Assembly could have expressly exempted the equalization board from the operation of the open meetings law if it wished, but it did not.

In Fathers Are Parents Too, Inc. v. Hunstein, 202 Ga. App. 716 (1992), the Court of Appeals held that the open meetings law did not apply to the judicial branch of state government. See also 1979 Op. Att'y Gen. 79-25 (interpreting former Code provisions). The rationale supporting the ruling was the doctrine of separation of powers and the independent measures adopted by the judiciary to assure openness and accessibility of the public to judicial decision-making. Hunstein, 202 Ga. App. at 717. The county equalization board does not fall within this rationale. It neither fits within the judicial branch, nor does it have the patent safeguards of accountability which exist within that branch of government. Thus, in my opinion, the equalization board cannot claim exemption by citing judicial affiliation. Accordingly, it is my unofficial opinion that the county board of equalization is not exempt from the provisions of the open meetings law by virtue of its members being appointed by the grand jury. Consequently, all official actions of the board must be conducted in an open meeting. Compare 1989 Op. Att'y Gen. 89-6; 1983 Op. Att'y Gen. 83-9 (deliberations of public body subject to open meetings law) with Red & Black Publishing Co. v. Board of Regents, 262 Ga. 848, 854 n.15 (1993)(the deliberations of the student organization court would not be open to the public).

According to your letter, the county board of tax assessors expresses no reason in support of its claim to be exempt from the open meetings laws. Unlike the equalization board which adjudicates taxpayers' claims, discussed supra, the board of tax assessors is charged with the duty to investigate and inquire into the property owned within the county for the purpose of ascertaining what real and personal property is subject to taxation. O.C.G.A. § 48-5-299. The investigation and inquiry of the assessors, in my opinion, does not possess judicial characteristics sufficient to warrant closure of the proceedings to the public. Thus, it is my unofficial opinion that the official proceedings of the board of tax assessors must comply with the open meetings laws and be open to the public. See O.C.G.A. § 48-5-297.

The foregoing analysis should not be read as altering the ability of the board of tax assessors and board of equalization from closing a meeting where matters which are considered confidential by law are to be presented or discussed. O.C.G.A. § 50-14-2(2). For example, this determination in no way impacts upon the confidentiality of taxpayer records as provided in O.C.G.A. § 48-5-314.

In summary, it is my unofficial opinion that a county board of tax assessors and a county board of equalization are subject to the provisions of the state open meetings laws.

Prepared by:

Assistant Attorney General