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Cumming Pays $200,000 For Georgia Law Violation
EJ75 Screen shot 2015 03 25 at 9.44.24 AM
Tisdale

A woman forced by police to stop videotaping a public city council meeting in Cumming has been awarded a $200,000 settlement from a federal lawsuit, according to her attorney.

The same woman, Nydia Tisdale, 51, was arrested in Dawson County last August for videotaping a public GOP rally at Burts Pumpkin Farm.

Tisdales attorney, Gerry Weber, sent the Dawson News & Advertiser details of his clients settlement against the City of Cumming and its mayor, H. Ford Gravitt. The settlement was handed down by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville division.

This settlement sends a powerful message that government officials cannot shroud their operations in secrecy by barring truth-telling video, Weber said. But more, the lawsuit has unveiled decades-old practices of an entrenched city government that has left its citizens in the dark. The Mayors actions were a blatant violation of citizens constitutional rights to record public meetings.

In April 2012, Cumming Mayor Gravitt had police escort Tisdale from city council chambers after she set up a videocamera to tape discussion of an intergovernmental agreement between the city and Forsyth County involving water service.

Georgias open meetings laws are clear that visual and sound recording are allowed during public meetings, according to the office of Georgias attorney general, which cites O.C.G.A 50-14-1.

Gravitts attorney, Dana Miles, who currently also represents Mayor James Grogan and the City of Dawsonville, sat silently as Tisdale was removed from the Cumming City Council chambers, as shown on a videotape of the incident posted at politifact.com.

TISDALE AWARDED $200,000

Tisdales federal lawsuits settlement calls for a $200,000 payment and states that Cumming city policies allow public filming of meetings. Payment was made to Tisdale on March 13, court records show. Cited in the lawsuit were Mayor Ford Gravitt, individually and in his official capacity, Cumming Police Chief Casey Tatum and Deputy Police Chief Walter Cook.

University of Georgia Journalism Professor Kent Middleton, an expert on journalism law, was contacted for comment.

What a waste of time and money and what a violation of the public interest, Middleton said, that Georgias citizens and the press must continue to litigate clear directives in the open records and meetings laws. Unfortunately, there are a number of counties that have violated the open record and meetings laws.

Additionally, in August 2014, Georgia was awarded $12,000 from Gravitt and the City of Cumming for violating the state open meetings law, according to Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office prosecuted the case.

The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment, Olens said Aug. 26, 2014.

TISDALE ARRESTED IN DAWSON COUNTY

Coincidentally, on Aug. 23, the same day Olens told Tisdale that he prevailed in his lawsuit against Cumming, Tisdale was arrested in Dawson County and charged with criminal trespass and felony obstruction of an officer when she refused to turn off her videocamera during a GOP rally held at Burts Pumpkin Farm.

Tisdale claimed she had permission from property owner Kathy Burt and several candidates to film the event.

Her attorney at the time, William Finch, said his clients rights were violated.

Well defend her in court in Dawson County on the criminal charges, and we expect to file federal suits, he said.

Dawson County Sheriffs Capt. Tony Wooten, who arrested Tisdale, was placed on administrative leave Aug. 27, amidst allegations from Tisdale that she was inappropriately touched during her arrest.

The sheriff's department's internal investigation cleared Wooten in less than 48 hours. Three or four eyewitnesses were interviewed, Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said at the time.

"It's not unusual for us to complete an investigation that quickly," Carlisle said. "It all depends on how fast we can get statements from people. And when there's an allegation against an officer, you move quickly. You either want to clear the officer or prove there was a policy violation or a violation of the law."

At the time of Tisdales arrest, Wooten was wearing a Class C sheriffs department uniform that included khaki pants, a black polo shirt with department logo, a badge, and firearm.

In an online video, Tisdale can be heard shouting for Wooten to identify himself.

Tisdale's videocamera was confiscated as evidence after her arrest. She later stated that segments of her videotape were missing when she received it back from the Dawson County Sheriffs Office.

Her camera was not altered; her video was not altered, Carlisle said at the time. We downloaded it to a CD for our records.

Linda Clary-Umberger, chair of the Dawson County Republican Party, was one of several eyewitnesses inside a barn where Tisdale was taken after her arrest.

Clary-Umberger can be seen in Tisdale video saying, Im sorry this is happening to you. This is wrong. Umbrella left the August event in protest.

Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh was reached earlier for comment on the criminal charges against Tisdale.

"The case is in my office for consideration as to whether a grand jury presentation would be appropriate within the September term of court, which lasts until March 2015," he said.

Tisdales case is not slated for the grand jury term ending this month.

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