By DOUG NURSE / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Published on: 07/11/07
A corporate Dr. Phil was supposed to put the dysfunctional Milton City Council on the couch Tuesday, but he canceled the appointment when his doctor-client privilege collided with the First Amendment.
Doug Griest of Atlanta's Management Psychology Group had planned to conduct a team conflict resolution session at City Hall but announced he wouldn't come because The Atlanta Journal-Constitution planned to cover the meeting.
"There's never been a situation like this that we're aware of," said City Attorney Mark Scott. "You have doctor-client privilege running up against the open meetings law. How do we reconcile that? I don't know."
Consequently, the city is paying about $6,400 for an analysis and now isn't sure how to get it. Officials are asking the Georgia Municipal Association if they can meet with Griest in a session closed to the public or at an undisclosed location.
Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said council sessions with a psychologist do not constitute a valid exemption to the state's Open Meetings Act.
"While it's commendable the City Council would want to serve the city better, meeting with a psychologist is not reason to deny public access and oversight," Manheimer said. "These are not private parties. These are public officials doing the public business."
Several members of the council were clearly frustrated at not being able to have their heart-to-heart session with Griest.
"We need this badly," said council member Karen Thurman. "There are some things we need to try to work through. We want him to try to help us fix some of our issues."
The fussing and feuding on the council stands in stark contrast to the pastoral setting of this North Fulton community, an area known for its horse farms, country clubs and mansions.
How bad are things?
Although Milton legally became an incorporated city just seven months ago, three council members, including the mayor, have already had ethics complaints filed against them.
Two council retreats mediated by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government have broken down into how-to-get-along sessions.
Obviously, they didn't take.
The council is split 4-3 on issues big and small. Members quarrelled about changes to the city charter, an argument that nearly roped in the governor. Issues drag on forever, such as one case in which the city was asked to authorize sewer extensions to property already surrounded by sewer pipes. The property owner finally gave up.
The council has tried adopting rules to force members to play nice, but the sniping continues, with members sometimes accusing each other of deceit and dishonesty in open meetings.
And Tuesday was just another bad day.
The mayor canceled the meeting, only to have the majority of the council decide to hold it anyway. The result was confusion until city staff tracked down all of the members.
Then, they quibbled about why they were even there, and what they should do.
A weary Mayor Joe Lockwood said the city has set up a police deparment, fire department and court system, among other accomplishments.
"We have done a lot, but it's just overshadowed by all this," Lockwood said.
"If we didn't have all this B.S., we'd be doing well."