The city’s new Charter Review Commission may consider suggesting big changes to Sandy Springs government, such as allowing a tax hike. But chairperson Gabriel Sterling – better known as a Trump-denouncing Georgia election official – said commission members may discuss those topics privately by using a tactic controversial among open-government advocates.

The 10 members of the commission, which held its first meeting Feb. 4, were appointed by Mayor Rusty Paul, the City Council and each member of the Georgia House and Senate who represent the city in the General Assembly. The commission is tasked with reviewing the city’s charter and making any suggestions for changes to the legislators in a report due in mid-July.

The Georgia Municipal Association says a city charter establishes its government structure and defines boundaries, specific powers, functions, essential procedures and legal control. It may grant a city the authority to impose, regulate, tax or grant other powers.

Sterling was elected chairperson in a 6-4 vote, with Tochie Blad chosen as vice chair after falling short of votes for the top position.

Blad suggested revisiting the millage rate cap might be something they consider. She said it was one of the issues the first charter review commission formed in 2011 considered, but did not recommend.

The millage rate is the tax rate property owners are charged on their property’s assessed value. The city’s charter states that the tax rate “shall not exceed 4.731 unless a higher limit is recommended by resolution of the city council and approved by the qualified voters of the city of Sandy Springs.”

“I think one of the most controversial things and reflecting on the minutes from 2011 was that they considered removing or lifting the millage rate cap,” Blad said. “And I imagine now that we’re a more mature city, that might be something that this body if we hear from the citizens that want to see that might consider.”

Gabriel Sterling

Sterling last year oversaw the presidential election process for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and drew international attention for condemning conspiracy theories and denouncing President Trump for stoking political violence. Sterling now serves as the chief operating officer and interim director of the Professional Licensing Board Division under Raffensperger. He also served as Sandy Springs’ District 4 city councilmember from 2011 to 2018.

The charter commission will meet at least once a month. Sterling plans for subcommittees to research areas of the charter that the entire group wants to review in depth. The subcommittees would report findings back to the full commission.

Sterling proposed that, for certain discussions, committee members could meet in small groups or individually with him to “avoid a quorum” and thus not have to hold a public hearing.

“There’s nothing saying we couldn’t have five in this meeting at a time to hear from him potentially, or something like that, to avoid a quorum,” Sterling said in response to a suggestion about gaining information from former state Rep. Wendell Willard, who drafted the original charter. Sterling also told commission members that he intended to “call each of you all individually to kind of hear what you think and what you would like to see as how the process goes. I’m sure there’s many ways we can try to get to as much of what y’all want to see done, done in a way that remains transparent and gets the information you need.”

A quorum is a voting majority of a government body. Under the Georgia Open Meetings Act, any gathering of a government body’s quorum must be open to the public.

In an interview after the meeting, Sterling said he was not aware the commission is subject to the Open Meetings Act and that the group will follow that law. But, he said, the commission may still have those private discussions, which are legal but controversial under the act.

“I was spitballing at the time because that didn’t occur to me the subcommittees would have to do that, because I worked in the legislature before. They don’t necessarily have to do that,” Sterling said. The General Assembly has exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act.

“When we make decisions or have presentations of actual information and stuff like that to the public to see that can benefit them and help them understand the process, then that makes perfect sense,” Sterling said about which commission meetings would be public.

Jim Zachary, head of the Transparency First Foundation of Georgia, said a problem arises from the quorum language in the Open Meetings Act. Members of a public body can meet privately if they don’t have a quorum, which is the minimum number required to conduct business. The Sandy Springs City Council is known to regularly hold meetings of less than a quorum of members to privately discuss agenda items prior to a public vote.

Zachary has long criticized the quorum language in the Open Meetings Act as a loophole that allows government bodies to deliberate in private and allowing the public to see only the end result. Some other states, such as Tennessee, require non-quorum gatherings of government bodies to be public as well.

“The problem is the quorum language in the Open Meetings Act itself,” Zachary said. “Until that quorum language is shored up, then elected officials will find ways to circumvent the Open Meetings Act if they are bent that way.”

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.