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8 | Community
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As more governments employ Civic Dinners, an emerging issue is conflict between
the dinner-party concept, with its presumption of privacy and intimacy, and laws that
ensure open meetings, open records and other public accountability. Sandy Springs
initially denied the Reporter access to its racial dialogue meetings, claiming the media
would cause a “chilling effect” on discussion. The city relented only after attorney Da
vid Hudson, a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, advised that
denying access violated the state Open Meetings and Open Record acts.
The city of Brookhaven also considered using Civic Dinners to host racial dialogue
meetings, but instead is using the platform for a still-mysterious series of municipally
funded input meetings. The city refused to let the Reporter attend the first such meet
ing, held by City Manager Christian Sigman in September, and also refused to record it
for later viewing.
“The purpose of a civic dinner is to create an intimate platform in which a small
group can share their unique perspectives,” said city spokesperson Burke Brennan in
an email. “It is supposed to be a safe atmosphere for people to express themselves open
ly to their neighbors and their local government.”
In response to a formal complaint from the Reporter, Georgia Assistant Attorney
General Jennifer Colangelo said it appeared that Brookhaven’s Civic Dinners meetings
might be exempt from the Open Meetings Act, but also that the lack of case law about
this new form of gathering made it impossible to say for sure. The Civic Dinners makes
for “an uncertain question of law,” she said, indicating that litigation would have to re
Graham said she had not thought about possible Open Meetings implications of Civ
ic Dinners, but that the company “highly encourages” media participation. “We actually
encouraged Sandy Springs to invite reporters and allow reporters to come...,” she said.
“I think participants especially, when they know media is showing up, they get so excit
ed, because they’re like, ‘Hey, this is what this is all about.’” Equitable Dinners and the
ARC said they have opened their meetings to the press as well.
Graham said she did not know about Brookhaven’s meetings and that the city might
be using a free version offered on the website, which would leave the company itself
unaware. She said the company discourages free users from using the “Civic Dinners”
term for such meetings. “We also want to be cautious about our brand name,” she said.
2090 Dunwoody Club Drive
Sandy Springs, GA 30350