Geist penned the letter to members of a review panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to decide whether Marlow should be suspended pending the outcome of her criminal indictment. The panel recommended she not be suspended.
During the hearing on Nov. 14, Marlow’s attorney presented Geist’s letter to the panel as part of his argument her indictment did not impact her ability to do her job. Marlow was indicted on charges she lied when she told police the school superintendent attempted to run her down in June.
The Cherokee Tribune filed a formal open records request with Geist on Nov. 22.
Geist on Nov. 27 asked for a fee of $10 to produce the one-page document. However, he released the letter Friday after deciding that a fee should not be charged.
In the letter, dated Nov. 13, Geist wrote suspending Marlow would not be “in the best long-term interest of the board as a whole.”
Geist wrote in the letter the governor’s panel, consisting of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, Cobb School Board member Tim Stultz and Forsyth School Board member Ann K. Crow, could watch videos of Cherokee School Board meetings to “confirm first-hand how the board has functioned in recent months.”
Geist wrote that, whether it’s a result of additional experience or of learning from her own mistakes, Marlow had become more effective and professional in recent months.
“In my opinion, interrupting both the growth of Ms. Marlow as an individual and that of the Cherokee County Board of Education as a whole would be a step in the wrong direction and would deprive the voters of the board they elected just as it finally aspires to realize its potential,” Geist wrote.
Following the panel’s decision to allow Marlow to remain seated on the Cherokee Board of Education, Geist said he agreed to write the letter after Marlow asked if he would earlier in November.
“Shortly after the Nov. 7 meeting of the board, I told Ms. Marlow that I thought that she had been working well with the board in recent months, in spite of the ethics hearing and her legal troubles,” Geist said. “Ms. Marlow asked if I would consider writing a letter to the panel to that effect and I told her that I would.”
Geist said the panel’s decision to allow Marlow to remain seated on the board, as her indictment on the four felony counts moved forward in court, will help the school board get back to business.
“I think that this gets the Board of Education one big step closer to putting our focus back on regular business. For that I am relieved,” he said.
Marlow and two of her associates, political adviser Robert Trim and Cherokee GOP Secretary Barbara Knowles, were indicted in October in Cherokee County on charges of making a false statement to police.
The panel, appointed by the governor, was charged with determining whether or not Marlow’s indictment related to, or adversely affected, Marlow’s ability to do her job on the school board, according to Georgia Code. The indictments are related to a June 13 incident when Knowles allegedly called 911 and reported to the Canton Police Department that Cherokee Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo almost ran them over with his car after a school board meeting.
When the Tribune made a formal, written request for Geist’s letter in accordance with the Georgia Open Records Act, Geist replied to the request and said the laws were unclear and it would cost $10 for him to produce his letter. Geist wrote in his Nov. 27 reply to the Tribune that, “it is my conclusion that the Open Records Act is unclear with respect to how it may apply to unofficial actions of individual school board members.”
However, David E. Hudson, a Georgia Press Association attorney, said Wednesday the law is clear.
“There is really no doubt at all,” Hudson said. “If a public official prepares a document about a matter of public business, the document is a public record and must be produced upon request unless an exception applies.”
Geist wrote in his reply, although he did not believe the Open Records Act applied to his letter, he would provide the Tribune with a copy because, “transparency is something for which I have been a long-time advocate.”
Geist was unable to be reached for comment Friday.
“Using the guidelines of the Open Record Act and based on my yearly compensation as a school board member, divided by the hours required to complete official duties including meetings, working sessions and mandatory training, I would estimate an hourly rate of $150 to $180,” Geist wrote. “I would estimate the time required to locate and produce the record at 10 minutes- $150 at one-sixth of an hour is $25.”
Geist wrote in the reply he could waive the fee, but offered an alternative.
“I will reduce the fee to $10 and make the document available to you upon payment or, alternatively, I will provide you or your representative with a copy of the document at no charge immediately following the Dec. 5 meeting of the Board of Education,” Geist said.
Hudson said the document should be released without delay, and there should be no charge.
“Under the Open Records Act, the first 15 minutes in complying with a request must be free of charge to the requester,” Hudson said in relation to the fee Geist proposed. “The member should provide the document without delay. The only legitimate cost he could charge is 10 cents per page for paper copies. If he sends by email, there should be no charge for copies.”
After learning of Hudson’s assessment, Geist said he was unclear after reading the laws.
“I was basing my information on my reading of the code and I must’ve missed the part where the first 15 minutes was free,” Geist said. “It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable thing.”