Almost three years after being illegally removed from a Georgia city council meeting, Nydia Tisdale settled her federal lawsuit for $200,000 and an audio-visual recording policy that guarantees the right to record city council meetings.
On April 17, 2012 just hours after a new Georgia Sunshine Law allowing video recording at open-and-public meetings took affect, Tisdale attempted to record a Cumming City Council meeting for her website AboutForsyth.com. Started in 2011, the site serves as a space to keep citizens informed on the happenings of local government.
Tisdale had filmed previous city council meetings at a separate county administrative building. However, during her first attempt to record inside Cumming City Hall, Mayor H. Ford Gravitt had Tisdale forcibly removed from the meeting as she protested her rights as a citizen to record the meeting as you can see in the video below.
Georgia Sunshine Law [O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1.] Open and Public Meetings Act reads, “The public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public. Visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.”
Throughout the exchange, Tisdale made numerous references to the law and even called for City Attorney Dana Miles to validate her claims. Miles remained silent and Gravitt, even after hearing Tisdale’s threat to file suit, was unfazed as two police officers dragged her from the meeting.
Tisdale made a second effort to record the meeting on a smaller camera but was once again removed. She then took matters in to her own hands by filing an Open Meetings Act complaint with Attorney General Sam Olens the same night.
Through its Open Government Mediation Program, Olens tried to get the city to voluntarily pay a fine for violating Open Meetings Law three times in a single meeting.
After months of unsuccessful negotiations, a lawsuit was filed: Attorney General Sam Olens v. Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, et al. No. 12-CV-1205 in Forsyth County Superior Court on June 5, 2012.
A second lawsuit was filed soon after: Nydia Tisdale v. Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, et al. No. 2:12-CV-00145-RWS in Unites States District Court, Northern District of Georgia on June 12, 2012.
During a 2013 deposition of the mayor, it was discovered that Gravitt had granted long-term traveling friend Angela “Angie” Mullinax city health insurance, even though she was not a city employee.
This scandal, lead to further scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who subpoenaed health insurance and employment records. They also pulled records regarding official travel expenses and the Carolyn Gravitt Memorial Scholarship Fund created to honor the Mayor’s late wife.
On August 21 2014 Senior Superior Court Judge Robert W. Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Sam Olens and ordered defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties plus attorneys’ fees, which is well over six figures. The Mayor appealed the decision claiming sovereign immunity.
One month later, Tisdale’s case was officially headed to jury trial, however Tisdale settled for $200,000 inclusive of all penalties, damages, attorney’s fees and expenses granting her in the words of Senior Superior Court Judge Robert W. Adamson, “finality.”
“I am relieved that this protracted lawsuit has finally settled,” Tisdale stated. “I have reached finality.”
Despite this victory, the fight was not over. The defendants attorney’s made a strong push to keep the terms of the settlement private, Tisdale stood firm on the grounds of transparency.
“Citizens have a right to know what their government is doing,” Tisdale said in a statement. “I am pleased that the clandestine, shadow government that has controlled the City of Cumming and, indirectly, Forsyth County for over forty years has come under scrutiny by the Feds.”
Tisdale is no stranger when it comes to fighting for the rights of the public press. She has been involved in a number of public disputes over recording laws including a situation where she had a Georgia police officer suspended.
“The settlement sends a powerful message that government officials cannot shroud their operations in secrecy by barring truth-telling video,” said Gerry Weber, Lead Counsel for Tisdale. “But more, the lawsuit has unveiled decades-old practices of an entrenched city government that has left its citizens in the dark. The Mayor’s actions were a blatant violation of citizens’ constitutional rights to record public meetings.”
To this day, Tisdale continues to attend and record Cumming City Council meetings, serving as a defiant beacon for fellow journalists to model and respect.
The City of Cumming should have known better because in the 2000 case known as Smith vs. Cumming, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that citizens have the right to record public officials conducting public business.