The council approved authorization for Mayor Mark Mathews or his designee to sign an $450,000 settlement agreement with the Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency. The measure passed 4-0, with Councilman Bill Thrash absent.
In January 2010, the city filed a suit against GIRMA, its liability insurance carrier, seeking to recover the $450,000 that came from city coffers to settle a 2009 racial-discrimination lawsuit, in which two black workers in the city’s Public Works Department and one former department worker from Korea alleged racial discrimination amid a hostile work environment.
That suit was settled for $1.8 million in July 2009.
GIRMA paid $1 million of the total payment to the plaintiffs and their attorney, while the city paid the remaining $450,000. However, the two sides disagreed over whether the harassment counted as a single act. The city said no and accused GIRMA of acting “in bad faith” by refusing to pay more than the $1 million toward the settlement.
On Friday afternoon, Mathews said the city and GIRMA had reached a settlement after months of mediation, with the insurance company agreeing to pay $450,000.
The mayor said GIRMA — which has a membership of nearly 330 agencies whose premiums are pooled to pay claim defense, claim losses, insurance to limit exposure and administrative expenses — offered the settlement amount after Monday’s regular council meeting.
So on Wednesday the city scheduled a special called meeting at 7:30 a.m. May 25 in the council’s chambers at City Hall, he said.
“A special called meeting that was needed to get it signed prior to the (Memorial Day) holiday weekend,” Mathews said. “I think Mayor Pro Tem (Cris) Welsh had to be completed by 7:45 a.m., so we accommodated that for her and called the meeting for 7:30 a.m.”
However, the only public access door to the council’s chamber off Watts Drive was found locked when a Journal reporter attempted to attend the public meeting. By about 7:32 a.m., the meeting was over and members of the council had gathered outside of City Hall.
Councilwoman Welsh said the council doesn’t normally meet so early and that the matter was likely a mistake.
Mathews also said the locked door was a mistake.
“I heard about it after the meeting,” he said. “It was not supposed to be, and I don’t know why (the doors) didn’t get opened up. They should have been.”
On April 17, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law legislation that immediately added teeth to the state’s existing Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. Among other things, the bi-partisan changes increased the maximum fines for violations to $1,000 for single offenses and $2,500 for repeat offenses.
Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Attorney General Office, which pushed for the changes, said she couldn’t comment on whether or not the city of Kennesaw had violated the Open Meetings law without a formal investigation.
David Hudson, an Augusta attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said it appears that the meeting was in violation of the Open Meetings Act. He also said that the matter voted on during such a meeting becomes nullified only if challenged in court within 90 days.
“Even if a topic is to be discussed that may be discussed in a closed session, it requires a motion and vote during the public part of the meeting to then close it,” he said. “Also, any votes taken must be in the open session of the meeting.”