Bill Restores Transparency

Alabamians who care about transparency in government should be pleased to see – and to support – legislation that will repair the damage done to the public good by three deeply disturbing decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court. A prefiled bill by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, responsibly addresses the issues in those open government decisions.

In 2012, the court upheld the fundamentally dishonest practice of so-called "serial meetings," smaller gatherings of government bodies in which there is never a quorum present, but in which important matters that will come before the full body are discussed. It's a sneaky way around the Open Meetings Act, but the court held that is not unlawful.

(That decision was particularly painful here because the case involved the Montgomery County Board of Education, which employed serial meetings during a superintendent search.)

Ward's bill prohibits serial meetings. That alone is enough to warrant supporting it, but the bill goes further in strengthening the right of Alabamians to know what their government is doing.

In a 2013 decision, the court held that citizens have no standing to bring suits under the Open Meetings Act if the civil penalty is paid to the state. Money is not the point of such suits, of course; the idea is to hold public officials accountable for the transparency required under the law.

Ward's bill states that a citizen may bring suit under the act and, if he or she prevails and there is a civil penalty levied, the citizen gets it. The penalty may be as little as $1 under the law, but again, the money is not the point. Stopping the unlawful secrecy is.

In 2013, the court also held that there is no requirement that the proceedings of the Legislature be open to the public. The very notion of the doors of the Legislature being closed in the collective face of Alabama is appalling and, even though it surely would be most unlikely to happen, the fact that the court gave legal cover to the idea is troubling.

Ward's bill clarifies that the Legislature is governed by the state constitution in this regard and its doors are to be open to the public.

The Open Meetings Act offers valuable protections for the people, protections that were lamentably weakened by these state Supreme Court decisions. Ward's bill fortifies the law anew and should be passed when the Legislature convenes next month.

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