The first shot in the next Battle of Manassas may have just been fired.
The City of Manassas and its elected officials are facing a lawsuit filed by two citizens inside the city limits.
Tom and Audrey Baugh filed for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief related to the Open Records Policy of the City of Manassas and the qualifications of the city under Georgia law per the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
The case was filed by the Baugh’s attorney, Benjamin P. ONeal of Hinesville on May 4. In it, the Baughs allege that the City’s Open Records Policy “inhibits, restricts, and subjugates the rights of citizens and parties to obtain lawful records concerning the governance and actions of the City of Manassas.” The ultimate claim is that the policy enacted by the City violates the Open Records Policy enacted by the Georgia legislature. In the case of Manassas, the $0.25/page charge exceeds the state’s allowable $0.10/page charge.
The Baughs claim they made multiple attempts to obtain records and even sent a certified letter to City Hall which as rejected. They claim that, despite having legal representation, the city has not fulfilled their requests.
The City approved a new Open Records Policy at the March meeting following a series of Open Records Requests by the Baugh family. A source that spoke on the condition of anonymity said that prior to the requests made by the Baughs, the city had never received an Open Records Request before. Cities are permitted to create their own policy, but it must be within the bounds of the Act of the State.
Additionally, the Baughs claim that the City Hall’s operating hours of ‘Tuesdays from 3pm – 6pm) further limit access to records. The Georgia Open Records Act requires a response time of three days and a reasonable fulfillment time for the request. Absence or unavailability do not excuse a delay under the law.
The Baughs have requested documents related to the grants obtained by the city as well as the accounts held by Manassas. On a blog managed by Baugh, he alleges that city offered the opportunity to review a box of documents to fulfill his request. The Open Records Requests filed by the Baughs have not been published, however, depending on the wording, the “box” may be sufficient. Georgia law does not require agencies to “create” any document to fulfill a request. (Ex: In 2016, AllOnGeorgia spent 6 hours at Claxton’s City Hall sorting through boxes of documents in an attempt to seek files relating to a request)
The Baughs are not native Tattnall County residents, but have resided in the city for a few years and Audrey Baugh briefly served on the City Council before resigning in early 2017. The pair has chronicled their issues on their blog LeechCity where they have referred to the council as ‘unruly small children’ in describing their actions in meetings and called their policies “Marxist.” Tensions have long been high between the Baughs and city officials and have only worsened since Mayor Rogers filed a harassment complaint with then-Sheriff Quinton Rush because Tom Baugh was “interrupting” meetings.
The Baughs have also taken to task the City’s request for payment upfront, however, the law is murky per OCGA 50-18-71(c)(3) and it is not uncommon for some agencies to request payment ahead of time.
The complaint also includes a letter from 1994 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs confirming Manassas’ requirements for ‘city status,’ though no mention of those qualifications was mentioned in the body of the complaint.
The Tattnall County Sheriff’s Office served the respondents on the same day the case was filed in Superior Court.
- The City of Manassas
- Mayor Wanda Rogers
- Councilman Shawn Edwards (received by Tonya Edwards)
- Councilwoman Tonya Edwards
- Councilwoman Emily Callaway
- Councilman Michael Godbee (received by Wanda Rogers)
- City Clerk Tracie Durrence (received by Wanda Rogers)
The complaint demands a 12-person jury trial to decide the facts of the case, formal declarations that the city policies are not sound, summons to the defendants, and “any other relief” the court deems lawful and just.
The case has been assigned to Judge Jay Stewart of Claxton. If it is determined that the delay in providing documents was deliberate, the Judge may use his discretion to assess a fine of up to $1,000 per person. Fines are issued at the discretion of the judge or the state Attorney General’s office.
The six were allotted 30 days time to respond to the complaint and are currently operating under the legal advice of the City Attorney. Due to the pending litigation, the Mayor, Clerk, and Council members have been advised to avoid commenting publicly.
With a population of just 94 residents, the City of Manassas has long been governed in a community effort by the families that remain in the small town. Mayor Rogers succeeded former Mayor Roy Godbee who served as Mayor for 8 years following the death of Rogers’ husband Mack. Many names, past and present, seem repetitive, but nepotism seems to be a result of a lack of people willing to serve, not an effort to stack the deck.
But when it comes to the Open Records Policy, whether it is negligence or ignorance, the issue is set to move forward in Judge Stewart’s Court. The 30-day period of response expires on June 5.
The full case file complete with the summons is available at the Clerk of Superior Court Office at the Tattnall County Judicial Annex. The case number is 2017-V-98-JS.
The complaint is below. If you’re reading on mobile and cannot view the PDF file, click here.