Students activists like Phaidra Buchanan, a senior at the University of Georgia and member of Beyond Baldwin, were blindsided when UGA announced the Presidential Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Community had completed its work. She noted that neither the task force nor the UGA Planning Committee on Diversity and Inclusive Excellence released any meeting minutes to the public.
Beyond Baldwin is a group of UGA students and alumni whose mission is to leave the university better than they found it, Buchanan said. One pillar of their goal is asking UGA to be transparent with the community about internal decisions.
“While they were deliberating [in these committees], we wanted to know what they were prioritizing, what initiatives they considered, which initiatives were suggested to them by the community and the process of how they came to the solutions that they recently released,” Buchanan said.
UGA President Jere Morehead announced via email on Jan. 11 that the university’s diversity task force completed its work and “several of their recommendations are already being implemented.”
The creation of the task force and its sister committee, the UGA Planning Committee on Diversity and Inclusive Excellence, was announced in July as a path forward for the university during a nationwide racial reckoning. The purpose of the committees was to develop ideas to create a more supportive environment for the BIPOC community at UGA. According to his email, President Morehead committed $1 million in private resources to support the task force’s recommendations.
Members of Beyond Baldwin also wanted to hold the university accountable for what they said these committees would accomplish.
“A lot of times, universities will form committees to look at things, and then they won’t actually do anything. So we wanted to make sure that that didn’t happen in this instance,” said Kyle Patel, a senior at UGA and member of Beyond Baldwin.
At first, members of Beyond Baldwin tried reaching out to their connections within the two committees to try and get an ear to the door.
Buchanan said Beyond Baldwin learned from members of the committees that members could tell their friends and associates about what went on during the meetings, but generally releasing information to the public was frowned upon.
On Nov. 11, 2020, Buchanan decided to make an open records request under the Georgia Open Records Act for all of the records associated with the two committees, including meeting minutes, notes and responses to surveys.
Bob Taylor, the university’s open records manager, informed Buchanan that retrieval and redaction of the survey responses alone would cost her $180.50.
The meeting minutes from the two committees could not be released because they do not exist, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email to The Red & Black.
“Neither group kept minutes or maintained recordings of their meetings. Because the groups are merely advisory to the President, without delegated authority to take official actions on behalf of the university, the requirements of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act do not apply,” Trevor said.
Meeting the law
According to Georgia law, the legal definition of a meeting is “the gathering of a quorum of any committee of the members of the governing body of an agency or a quorum of any committee created by the governing body at which any official business, policy or public matter of the committee is formulated, presented, discussed or voted upon.”
Frank LoMonte, the director at the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said when that governing body is the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, the situation becomes a little more complicated. As part of the university system, UGA’s decision-making process is accountable to the rules and policies of USG.
“If it looked like some kind of rule-making or lawmaking power had been delegated down from the Board of Regents to the president, and then from the president to one of these advisory bodies, then you would have [to have] an open public meeting,” LoMonte said.
LoMonte, who previously worked as a lawyer in Atlanta, said Georgia courts have held that committees which exist for the sole purpose of advisory are allowed to conduct closed meetings. In the 1973 case of Scott McLarty v. BOR et al., the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that Georgia’s open meetings law “does not encompass the innumerable groups which are organized and meet for the purpose of collecting information, making recommendations, and rendering advice but which have no authority to make governmental decisions and act for the State.”
Of course, LoMonte said just because a committee is legally allowed to close a meeting, does not mean they should.
“Especially when you’re talking about diversity, meaning that you’re trying to bring in the most varying opinions that you possibly can. It feels counterintuitive to say, ‘We are going to shut our doors and just tell you afterward what we have decided,’” LoMonte said.