Ga. AG’s Office Investigating Hartwell DDA for Open Records Violation Allegation

By MJ Kneiser, WLHR Radio, Lavonia

The Georgia State Attorney General’s office is investigating the Hartwell Downtown Development Authority for possible violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.

On Tuesday, former Hartwell DDA Executive Director Mitch Skelton confirmed he filed a complaint with the State last week.

“Yes, I did and I immediately got a response from the Senior Assistant Attorney General who said, yes, it looked like there had been a violation of the state’s Open Records Act,” Skelton said. “They have since sent a letter alerting the city and the DDA that they are investigating.” 

Skelton, who was fired from his job with the DDA in mid-November, says in his complaint to the state that his firing was a violation of the Georgia Open Records Act because it was done in a closed session

Senior Assistant Attorney General Steffan Ritter said in a letter to HartwellCity attorney Robert Leverett that his office is investigating Skelton’s allegations.

In a letter from DDA Board Chair Gene Fraley to Skelton, dated November 12th, Fraley described the closed meeting in which Skelton was fired and the board’s reasons for Skelton’s termination.

Fraley concluded the letter by asking Skelton to keep his termination quiet.

Ritter said under Georgia law, a board may not meet privately with an employee and under the Georgia Open Records Act, a board may not terminate an employee in a closed meeting.

Susan Kane is the spokesperson for the Georgia Attorney General’s office.

Kane said in such cases as this, the State will try to set up a mediation to resolve the matter.

“We basically try to mitigate the disagreement so that if the citizen has not gotten the records that they believe they are entitled to, that they get their records,” she said. “If there was violation of the Open Meetings Act, then we talk to the government (involved) and we explain to them the situation so that it won’t happen again.  If it’s a really egregious situation, then we may be forced to take legal action.” 

When contacted for a response to Skelton’s complaints and the investigation, Fraley said he has not seen the letter from the State Attorney General’s office and has no comment.

The State Attorney General’s office has given the City of Hartwell 14 days to respond.

Meanwhile, Skelton also filed a complaint with the City of Hartwell on Wednesday regarding the DDA’s use of the city attorney and he demanded Leverett no longer advise the DDA on any legal matters.