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When is it legal for Georgia government organizations to go into executive session?

State law says anybody who intentionally takes part in an illegal meeting could be charged with a misdemeanor.

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — You hear about our government being "by the people and for the people," but twice this past week, we've seen local governments go behind closed doors to do your business in secret. 

We spoke with a couple of First Amendment experts to give you a closer look at "executive sessions" and why it's sometimes legal.

In Georgia, an executive session means a portion of a meeting is lawfully closed to the public.

The majority of government office, commission board, council meetings are public -- after all, it's your business they're handling and your tax money they're spending -- but sometimes, they are private.

"Often the question is, 'When is it lawful to close a meeting to the public?' because the public otherwise has every right to be at these public hearings in a place like Georgia," Mercer Law Professor David Oedel said.

According to Oedel, it takes a majority vote for a government body to go into executive session.

"They may have a good reason, but the presumption is the meeting should be open, and what you have to do is demonstrate in a way why it is to keep this private," Oedel said.

Discussions about personnel matters, lawsuits, or real estate purchases or contracts are the only reasons they can close a meeting. That's according to Richard T. Griffiths with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

"They can't come out of an executive session and say, 'Well, item A that we discussed in the executive session, all in favor, please say AYE,' and everybody votes 'AYE.' 'OK, the AYEs have it,' and move on and nobody knows what happened. That, they are not allowed to do," Griffiths said.

During any executive session, they can only discuss the issue. They can't legally take a vote.

"At some point, there has to be some explanation for why they are in executive session," Oedel said.

State law says anybody who intentionally takes part in an illegal meeting could be charged with a misdemeanor. They could be fined up to $1,000

"It's important if public officials want to maintain the public's trust, for as much as they possibly can, to have in-the-open, for those decisions and those deliberations, to be in the open," Griffiths said.

According to Oedel, if they are receiving counsel from a lawyer about whether they can go into executive session, that cannot be in executive session. That discussion must be public. 

For a full copy of Georgia's Sunshine Law and Open Meeting Act, visit this website.

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