Public safety training center committee’s media-talk ban is based on unenforced Athens-Clarke policy
By John Ruch
An attempt by the chair of the Atlanta public safety training center’s advisory committee to ban other members from speaking to the media is based on an Athens-Clarke County government policy posted on a website, internal emails reveal. But an Athens-Clarke spokesperson says that policy is not enforced and that its committee members talk freely to the press.
Alison Clark, chair of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), announced the ban at the group’s January meeting. The ban was plainly aimed at Lily Ponitz, then the CSAC secretary, for talking to SaportaReport for a story that revealed the committee was straying off-mission with parkland planning and overlooking an area left out of a key environmental study.
Clark said her intent was to “make it clear any comments to the media should be channeled through the chair” or co-chair so they reflect the “consensus of the committee.” She said a “media policy” would be forthcoming, but it was not ready for the February meeting, and this month’s meeting has been delayed from March 8 to March 28.
David Hudson, a media-law attorney who is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, previously said the ban likely violates the Constitutional free-speech rights of members, and the City’s chief transparency officer has said she is not aware of any other City body with such a speech restriction.
While the point of the policy was to have Clark answer media questions, Clark did not respond to SaportaReport questions about the policy and its legal basis. Clark also did not respond to questions for the story that triggered the ban. However, through an open-records request, SaportaReport has obtained an internal email discussion about it between Clark and Marshall Freeman, the chief operating officer of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the private group planning the training center and supervising the City-created CSAC.
In a Jan. 12 email chain, Clark and Freeman discussed SaportaReport’s questions about the ban, with both saying they would not respond. Clark said SaportaReport’s coverage of the ban was “way out of context,” but, she added, “That said, I am curious to know what [the] city/attorney has to say.”
Clark also provided Freeman with the text of her media-ban statement at the January meeting and a link revealing it was taken verbatim from an Athens-Clarke webpage describing the purpose and functions of the government’s advisory boards and committees. There was no explanation of why she was using an Athens-Clarke policy. The text, taken from a long list of “Expectations for Advisory Committee Members,” reads as follows:
“Any comments to the media about the Committee’s work should be channeled through the Chair. If there is appropriate balance on the Committee, not all members would share an identical perspective. When an individual member, other than the Chair, is giving their perspective to the media, it is difficult for the media or average citizens to discern that this may not be the consensus opinion of the Committee. This is not fair to the Committee or the process.”
Informed about the CSAC’s public controversies and Clark’s intended use of the borrowed policy, Athens-Clarke spokesperson Jeff Montgomery said his government does not enforce it.
“I am not aware of any legal challenges to this policy,” said Montgomery. “In any case, it is only a recommendation as a best practice to have the chair involved, even if they aren’t the interviewee. There isn’t a prohibition on BAC [boards, authorities and commissions] members speaking to the media here in Athens, as it happens regularly.”
Supervisory staff members at two local newspapers, the Athens Banner-Herald and the Red & Black, said they were not aware of any issues with Athens-Clarke advisory committee members speaking to the media. The bodies appear to get little media coverage.
Other CSAC issues
At the February meeting, the CSAC resolved another transparency involving Ponitz via her resignation as secretary. The issue was the style of meeting minutes that Ponitz kept in her secretary role. Ponitz wanted the minutes to go into detail about discussions and promises and to include links to outside materials. Most other members wanted concise notes about consensus and decisions – though the CSAC rarely takes votes.
Ponitz announced she was resigning as secretary because the minutes “are going to say exactly what Alison wants them to say, nothing more and nothing less. And she’s using very passive-aggressive bullying and condescension to make this happen and I just refuse to be a party to that.”
“Just to be very clear, the minutes have a format that is not dictated by me,” Clark responded. “It is dictated by proper decorum for meetings.” She cited “Robert’s Rules of Order” and said that it is “highly inappropriate” for CSAC members to disparage each other.
As for the substance of the CSAC’s reviews of the training center plan, there was a bit of that at the February meeting. The CSAC is working on an agenda-setting internal survey while awaiting a consultant’s responses to questions about an environmental study and reports on the site’s historic and cultural resources. Those reports were delayed due to the issue of the incomplete study area, the coverage of which kicked off the “media policy” discussion.