Open Meetings bill needs quick passage
Jan 18, 2014 | 3123 views |  0 comments | 89 89 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In a government by the people, of the people and for the people, it would be logical to think the people have a right to know what their government is doing and how decisions are being made.

That’s logical, but it’s not always the case. It seems some government entities take it as a challenge to find ways to circumvent laws calling for open meetings.

When one of five candidates for a city jobs attends a council meeting where members vote unanimously, and without discussion, to hire that candidate, it’s obvious something transpired outside of public view. When a board of education votes to approve “Item 11” on its agenda without discussion, it’s obvious secret communications have taken place. When elected officials meet in small groups or use electronic communications to skirt the state’s open meetings law, the public is left in the dark about government business they pay for.

For the most part, elected officials and appointed board members engage in these types of activities for efficiency and convenience, not for dark conspiratorial reasons, but how would the public know? These are classic cases of doing the right thing the wrong way. But operating outside the light of public scrutiny opens the door wider to potential political favoritism and corruption.

In recent years, Alabama’s Supreme Court has ruled that some of these practices are legal. In a 2012 Montgomery school board case where members had serial meetings when they decided not to hire an interim superintendent for the head job, the court determined the state open meetings law did not forbid them from doing so. In a 2013 case challenging the way the Legislature switched bills in a closed meeting to pass the Alabama Accountability Act, the court said the state’s 1901 Constitution authorizes the Legislature to establish its own procedural rules. That constitutional authority overrides the open meetings act.

And even in cases where entities violated the open meetings act, there was no effective penalty for the violations.

Gov. Robert Bentley has come out in support of a new bill that attempts to put some teeth in the state’s open meetings law.

Introduced by Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster and Rep. Mike Hill of Columbiana, the bill takes a three-pronged approach to try to improve transparency in government at all levels in the state by amending the previous law.

First, it forbids meeting in groups of less than a quorum to discuss issues that will come before the full body unless public notice is given with an opportunity for the public to attend. The use of electronic communications to circumvent the law would be prohibited.

Second, the bill establishes the right of any Alabama citizen to sue a government body believed to have violated the open meetings law, with any penalties assessed payable to the plaintiff. The state Supreme Court previously ruled that citizens do not have standing to bring suits if the civil penalty is paid to the state.

Third, the bill requires the Legislature to meet openly, including all standing committees and subcommittees and permanent and joint legislative committees. Executive sessions may still be held if a motion that secrecy is required is voted on by the legislators.

Executive sessions would still be allowed by other bodies in specific circumstances, but even then they would not be required.

The governor’s support for the bill improves its chances of being dumped during the session. His comments about transparency, accountability and public involvement in government decisions are right on target. Ward said transparency is crucial to maintaining trust in government institutions.

An open representative form of government with public involvement is not the easiest way to get things done, but it’s the system we have chosen. This bill is important to restoring some of the transparency and openness that are vital to making our form of self-government work best. It needs to be passed in this session.