Gadsden Times- House Should Pass Senate's Open Meetings Act

Published: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.

 

 

A battle was waged in the Legislature this week on behalf of the public and, for once, the public won. We’re often skeptical when legislators say their bills protect the public in one way or another, but that’s not the case with Sen. Cam Ward’s legislation on government transparency.

In 2005, Alabama’s Open Meetings Act got a long overdue update, but a series of rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court stripped several key provisions out of the legislation, rendering it close to toothless.

Ward, R-Alabaster, proposed new legislation to plug the loopholes and it took a concerted effort by him and Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, President Pro Tem of the Senate, to usher the bill through. Ward’s initial proposal drew opposition but he, the Alabama Press Association and a collection of groups such as the Alabama League of Municipalities, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Association of County Commissions and others worked together to craft legislation that was practical for the affected governmental bodies while protecting the public as well.

One provision the bill restores allows the public to sue over closed meetings. The court had made that more difficult, but Ward says civil actions can be brought by any Alabama resident and provides for penalties ranging from $1 to $1,000 for violations of the open meeting requirements.

The bill also makes it clear that the Open Meetings Act applies to committees and subcommittees, something the court said the 2005 law didn’t outline.

The third provision prohibits serial meetings in which less than a quorum of a board deliberates privately an issue that will come before the board for a vote within seven days. Serial meetings have long been used to circumvent open meeting laws and the bill should help stop the practice.

Open meeting laws are often portrayed as being to the benefit of newspapers and other media, but we see them differently. City councils, county commissions and other governmental bodies are charged with being stewards of public money — your hard-earned tax dollars. If they do business out of the public eye, accountability suffers. We’d like to think that all “public servants” have the public’s best interests at heart, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes their interests get put first. Open meeting laws help prevent that.

Ward’s bill should receive a warm welcome in the House, where approval was unanimous for the 2005 legislation. The bill has the support of Gov. Robert Bentley, so the first hurdle was the biggest. We hope it doesn’t hit a snag before Bentley signs it into law. It is in the public’s best interest.

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