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Open Meetings Act Passes the Senate

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A bill passed by the Alabama Senate on Thursday would restore the public's ability to sue because of closed meetings, the sponsor said.

The Senate voted 26-1 for the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster and backed by the Alabama Press Association and Gov. Robert Bentley. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Ward said three recent decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court gutted Alabama's open meetings law and this legislation restores many of its provisions.

One court ruling made suing because of a secret meeting difficult, but Ward's bill says civil actions can be brought by any Alabama resident. The bill provides for penalties ranging from $1 to $1,000 for violating open meeting requirements.

In response to another court ruling, the bill makes clear that the open meetings requirements apply to committees and subcommittees created by government boards.

Ward's bill also prohibits two or more serial meetings in which less than a quorum of a board gets together privately to deliberate an issue the board will vote on within seven days.

It does not prohibit members of a board from exchanging background and educational information before a vote, but they can't deliberate. It also does not change the way the Legislature conducts its business, and it does not apply to trustees of the University of Alabama and Auburn University when they have gatherings to fill top academic and coaching positions.

The bill is a compromise worked out with associations representing county commissions, city councils, and school and college officials.

Ward said he's optimistic the bill will become law because the public needs transparency in government.

"It is absolutely necessary for confidence in government," he said.

Felecia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, thanked the Senate leadership for making the bill a priority.

"It restores key provisions of our open meetings law that are important to Alabama citizens," she said.


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Could Teachers See A Pay Raise?

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is working with Gov. Robert Bentley to pass a raise for public education employees in a “middle of the road” plan between two opposing views on the matter.


Senate Bill 232, which was pending action in the state Senate’s Committee on Finance and Taxation Education as of Feb. 25, would provide for a 2-percent across-the-board raise for public education employees.

If passed during the current legislative session, the raise would go into effect beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.

In a Feb. 25 phone interview, Ward said he would “like to do more” for public education employees, but said the state’s education budget would not support it.

“Two percent, I think that’s doable for our teachers,” Ward said

Ward said his 2-percent proposal represents the “middle ground” between a group of legislators pushing for no raise and a group pushing for a 6-percent raise.

“We only had $123 million in growth in the education fund last year, and it would cost $150 million to do a 6 percent raise,” Ward said. “There is another group that wants a zero percent raise to help pay back the rainy day fund. Mine is in the middle of those two areas.”

If the 2-percent raise passes the Alabama Legislature this year, Ward said he likely would support a “2 or 3-percent” teacher raise next year.Ward said he expected the Committee on Finance and Taxation Education to discuss the bill the week of Feb. 24. If approved by the committee, the bill would move on to be considered by the full Senate.

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Jemison Soccer Team Off to Good Start

The first home game of the season for Jemison High School’s soccer team was a 4-1 loss to Chelsea, but the players and coaches involved with the team still think they’re off to a good start.

This year’s team marks the first for the school, and the program was helped on its way by a $1,000 grant presented by state Sen. Cam Ward on Tuesday, the same day as the game against Chelsea.

And the Panthers won their first game, 2-1 over Marbury on Feb. 10.

“This is very exciting, their first year,” Ward said after presenting the grant, which came from the state’s Education Trust Fund budget. “Obviously, they have a lot of enthusiasm for the program.”

There seems to be support for the program beyond the players. JHS juniors Carlos Paz and David Vazquez said they presented a petition with 160 signatures to Principal Allen Wilson, who agreed to allow the formation of the team.

Paz and Vazquez said they and others tried to get the program started last year, but there was no one available to coach.

Liz Odom has taken on that responsibility. Odom is in her first year at JHS after previously teaching and coaching the soccer team at Fultondale.

“I’m learning as I go because it’s a lot of stuff,” Odom said about starting a program. “I’m excited, and I love all my players.”

Local businessman Martine Maciel expressed interest in helping, so he conducts practices, allowing Odom to focus on organization and paperwork. And Nikki Henley has helped attain sponsorships from local business, such as Jack’s.

There are 21 players on the team, including one girl. The players range from eighth grade to high school seniors.

Some of them grew up playing soccer together at a local park, while others have never played before.

Paz and Vazquez said they’re excited to be playing for the school, despite the hard work it has taken to get to this point.

“Even trying to get the team started was fun,” Paz said.

Vazquez stressed the importance of the players keeping a positive attitude during an inaugural season that will surely have its ups and downs. If the team can do that, Paz said he thinks success will follow.

“We’ve got a good-looking team,” he said.

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Open Meetings Act Protects Your Rights

The Alabama Open Meetings Act’s purpose is straightforward: to provide citizens with “greater access to your state and local government,” according to its website.

“This law guarantees that Alabama’s citizens have open access to agencies, boards, commissions, and other governmental bodies which conduct the people’s business,” the website states.

The intent of the law is clear and admirable. Since it was passed in 2005, however, the act has been watered down by three Alabama Supreme Court rulings.

Now, a bill aimed at strengthening the act is before the Alabama Legislature. The bill has the support of Gov. Robert Bentley and the Alabama Press Association. We are proud to say two Shelby County congressmen sponsored the bill: State Sen. Cam Ward and State Rep. Mike Hill.

The bill proposes three amendments to the current law:

1. It would forbid “serial meetings,” in which members of government entities meet in small groups without proper public notice in an effort to avoid establishing a quorum.

2. It would provide a basis for Alabama citizens to sue a government body for violations to the Open Meeting Act, something Ward said currently is “almost impossible.”

3. The new act also would forbid the Alabama Legislature from holding closed meetings without holding a public vote declaring secrecy is required for the situation at hand.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary on Feb. 12, and will now move on to full Senate consideration. The corresponding state House of Representatives bill currently is pending action by the House Committee on Ethics and Finance.

Transparent government is essential to democracy, and this legislation will create a more robust Open Meetings Act, one that will better protect citizens’ right to participate fully in our government.

We urge the Alabama Senate and House to protect this right by passing this bill.

The editorial is the opinion of the Shelby County Reporter editorial board.

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Judicial Reallocation Bill Passes Senate Committee

Feb 5, 2014 – Montgomery, AL  – A high profile bill in the 2014 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature was voted out of committee today. The legislation is being championed by Sen. Cam Ward and has been worked on over the last three years by members of the Alabama Bar Association and Circuit Judges throughout the state.

Judicial Reallocation will completely reform the manner in which court resources are allocated in the state. There has not been an attempt to realign Circuit judgeships since the 1970’s.  “It will most likely see vigorous debate, with so many people, jobs and judicial resources on the line but the bill aims to make historic shifts in circuits to meet the changing court docket loads in Alabama,” said Ward

Sen. Ward went to say, “real reform is never non-controversial and I look forward to debating this issue on the floor of the Senate.”

“We haven’t looked at the make up of our circuits, and the number of judges since Howell Heflin was Chief Justice,” Ward said. “There are parts of the state that are growing, and parts that are shrinking, and we need to make sure we have the right number of judges per circuit.”

The proposed legislation does not throw any off the Judicial Bench, rather it moves certain judgeships between circuits through attrition and retirement.

“We’re not looking to toss judges out, and we’re not looking to do this in one fell swoop,” Ward said. “If we can have comity and some trust amongst the parties involved, I am confident we can work this process so everyone involved is satisfied.”

The bill is expected to come up for a full vote in the Senate soon.

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Chilton County Legislators Discuss Week Ahead

After a winter storm hit Alabama last week resulting in the 2014 legislative session being delayed for two days, Chilton County’s legislative delegation is looking forward to the week ahead.

“Everything is going well so far and we are looking forward to another great week,” Rep. Kurt Wallace, R-Maplesville, said on Monday. “I looked around last week during the storm and saw so many people coming together and trying to help their neighbors and it made me proud to be from Alabama.”

Wallace said the winter storm brought up discussion among legislators regarding missed days during the session.

“On Tuesday when the weather hit we only had 40 people show up in the House and we needed 53 to have a quorum,” Wallace said. “The Senate met and did business but the House did not meet on Tuesday or Wednesday. We burned a few days so it has led to discussion about what the rules say about us convening.”

Wallace said the rules of the Legislature require the bodies to reconvene at 10 a.m. the following day if a quorum is not present.

“Due to the weather still being bad on Wednesday we had to cancel again,” Wallace said.

Wallace said legislators are discussing the possibility of a proposal allowing leadership to reschedule meeting days if the governor declares a state of emergency for the entire state.

Wallace said an important bill recently passed by the Alabama House was the Healthcare Rights of Conscience bill sponsored by Rep. Becky Nordgren (R-Gadsden).

The bill would ensure that medical professionals are not forced to participate in procedures that violate their moral compass, including abortion, human cloning, human embryonic stem cell research and sterilization.

“This bill protects the doctors if they say something goes against their moral convictions,” Wallace said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said a bill is scheduled for final passage Tuesday seeking a tighter restriction on former lawmakers working as State House lobbyists.

Ward said the bill is sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and would ban former legislators from lobbying in the Legislature for two years after leaving office.

“I fully support this bill,” Ward said. “People should not use their positions to get a lobbying contract.”

Ward said a bill is scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee focusing on midwife legislation.

The bill would allow midwives to work in Alabama and oversee planned home births.

Another bill Ward said is scheduled for debate with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is strengthening the Open Meetings Law.

Ward and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, sponsor the bill which proposes changes to the Alabama Open Meetings Law that will strengthen the law.

The bill addresses three different concerns with the Open Meetings Law including stopping the practice of conducting secret serial meetings to avoid gathering a quorum at one time, granting citizens standing to sue for violations of the Open Meetings Act as the law was originally intended and make the law clear that the Legislature has a constitutional and statutory duty to meet in public unless they vote to go into executive session.

Gov. Robert Bentley held a press conference Jan. 24 to announce his support for the bill.

Ward said the amendments to the Open Meetings Law, which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate in 2005, restore the intent of the original law.

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Lawmaker: Alabama Must Make Fundamental Changes to Prison System

By Kim Chandler

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, had likened Alabama’s overcrowded prison system to a box of dynamite 

The Department of Justice “probably lit the fuse” with findings of unconstitutional conditions at Tutwiler Prison, he said.

“We’re going to have to make some fundamental system-wide changes. We can’t continue going on this road,” said Ward, who is chairman of the Joint Legislative Prison Committee. 

Legislative leaders today said something must be done to improve Alabama's prison system. But they also said there were no easy immediate answers.

Allen Farley, vice-chairman of the oversight committee, called for an independent investigation of the prison system.

“Nobody should ever be treated the way that these ladies have allegedly been treated,” Farley said. 

Farley called the officers who allegedly committed  the abuses "scum."

“You cannot buy integrity. You’ve got to go back and sit down and look at who we’ve got working for us, how long they’ve worked for us, what their background is, what allegations they’ve got against them,” Farley said.

Ward said he hopes to invite the Council of State Governments to conduct a review of the state prison system.

“We all know there is an issue with the prisons. There is overcrowding. Something has to be done,” Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said.

Hubbard, Ward and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh met with the representatives of the Council of State Governments on Wednesday.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he was concerned about corrections funding before the DOJ report. Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed General Fund budget gives the prisons essentially level funding.

“One of my areas of interest was to try to increase the appropriations for corrections,” Orr said. He said the DOJ report made that more pressing. 

 Ward said even if Alabama built prisons, it would not address the shortage of corrections officers.

"You don't have enough officers overall. You really don't have enough female officers," Ward said. 

The state is also discussing moving some of the nonviolent Tutwiler inmates to a now-closed state institution that once housed mentally disabled patients.  A spokesman for the department said that was a long-term goal.

Ward said the troubles in the prison system are not new. 

“Hopefully, this DOJ report will really wake everybody up.” Ward said. 

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the findings in the DOJ report are serious.

"We want to get to the bottom of that," Marsh said. "We want to make sure that our prisons are run correctly. We want to make sure the funding for our prisons is adequate. And we're addressing those things and are trying to continue to address those things."

"We're taking it very seriously," he said. "We want those things looked into, but also work to solve the long-term problems of our prisons."

Mike Cason and Kelsey Stein contributed to this report. 


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OUR VIEW: Undoing Damage to the Open Meetings Act

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.

The Alabama Legislature in 2005 passed a clear, strong Open Meetings Act to ensure that governmental business in this state, with specific, limited exceptions, would be conducted with people watching.

The bill was in response to court rulings, state and federal, that had weakened a law in effect since 1915 barring government bodies from meeting in secret unless someone’s “good name” was being discussed.

That pre-World War I law was ground-breaking in the U.S., and the 2005 revision was viewed throughout the country as a victory for open government.

Alabama can be a “circular” place, however, in that things that are fixed often don’t stay fixed.

Three rulings by the state Supreme Court again chipped away at the Open Meetings Act, giving governmental bodies more leeway to avoid scrutiny.

The court in 2012, in a case involving the Montgomery Board of Education, ruled the act only covered gatherings where a majority of board members were present.

Last September, it ruled plaintiffs couldn’t file civil suits under the act unless they would personally gain from that litigation.

And in another September decision — the topper — it ruled legislators couldn’t be required to follow their own rules and meet in public.

Once more, the Legislature is trying to clean up the mess.

A bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, and in the Senate by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would stipulate that the Open Meetings Act applies to the Legislature, legislative committees and committees and subcommittees of government boards.

It also would ensure that private citizens can sue under the act, with a minimum award of $1,000 if they win.

Gov. Robert Bentley supports the bill, as does the Alabama Press Association. It needs to pass with broad, bipartisan support.

It’s difficult to find better words than Bentley’s: “It is so important that an entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars always be open to the press, and it should always be open to the public.”

That doesn’t mean governmental bodies won’t stop pushing the limits, setting up more court challenges in which judges could do further mischief to the Open Meetings Act.

Executive Director Sonny Brasfield of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama already is concerned about the bill’s definition of a “serial meeting,” and how that might be interpreted if two commissioners show up at one function, two more at another and then they all vote the same way at the next meeting.

We think his concern is misplaced. The bill clearly states a “serial meeting” — which, like email, can’t be used to evade the Open Meetings Act — is when a quorum of a governmental body shows up at one place, without public notice, and discusses the same matter. The act should apply in that case.

Governmental bodies don’t always try to keep the doors closed because they’re up to no good. It’s easier to get things done without people watching — without having to answer questions or justify actions.

There’s just one problem — that’s not representative democracy.

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Ward Introduces Bill to Strengthen Open Meetings Law

By Phillip Rawls, AP

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The governor is joining two legislators and the Alabama Press Association in trying to strengthen Alabama's Open Meetings Act after recent court rulings allowed more government meetings closed to the public.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the Legislature updated the act in 2005 to provide more transparency in government. But he said, "three recent Supreme Court decisions really tore that transparency to shreds."

Ward is sponsoring the new legislation with Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana. At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Robert Bentley and the association for Alabama's weekly and daily newspapers endorsed it.

"It is so important that an entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars always be open to the press, and it should always be open to the public," said Bentley. The governor noted that he voted for the 2005 law when he was a state representative.

Ward, an attorney, pointed to three recent rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court. One said there is no requirement for the Legislature to hold open meetings. Another allowed some committees and subcommittees of government bodies to meet in private. The third said citizens do not have standing to bring suits under the Open Meetings Act if the civil penalty is paid to the state and there is no allegation of a likelihood of future violations

The bill provides that the Open Meeting Act applies to the Legislature, legislative committees, and committees and subcommittees of government boards. It also provides that private citizens can bring suit under the Open Meetings Act and, if they prevail, receive at least $1,000.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, agreed that some issues in the law need addressing. But he said the bill creates a new term called "serial meetings." He said his organization is concerned how that might be interpreted if two county commissioners show up at the same function, two more show up at a different function, and then all four vote the same way at the next commission meeting.

"We want to be sure public officials don't have to run from each other,' he said.

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Ward Named Chairman of Permanent Joint Oversight Committee for Energy Policy

Citing Work With National Legislative Committees on Energy, Committee Members Vote to Elevate Ward to Chairman 

January 15, 2014 – Montgomery, Ala. – Citing his national footprint on state-level energy policy, The Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy voted unanimously to elevate Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) to serve as Chairman.

“I’m honored that my colleagues see me as a leader, and have chosen to give me this opportunity,” Ward said. “I was present at the conception of this committee, and to see that hard work pay off, and be given a chance to make a real difference in our state energy policy, and the jobs that it brings, is a real proud moment for me.”

Ward has emerged as a leader on energy issues in Alabama, and regionally, through his work with associations of state legislative leaders such as Southern Legislative Conference, State Agriculture and Rural Leaders and as Vice Chairman of The Energy Task Force for The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ward was recently in Oklahoma City to meet with a group of Agriculture Committee Chairmen to see how those two vital interests can better work together. Ward was the Keynote Speaker for The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Lunch, speaking to them about the importance of The Port of Mobile in regional energy policy, and the recent attacks on Alabama’s energy interests by environmental groups such as The Sierra Club.

“Cam is passionate about energy policy, and he is known as a leader in national energy committee circles, so this is a no brainer,” Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said. “Cam just gets it, and that’s why you see him out in front on vital issues like energy.”

“My plan is to share the good news about energy exploration and creation in Alabama, and the threats that the current administration and EPA policies pose to this vital industry,” Ward said. “Alabama ranks 13th in Energy production, and has the highest percentage of “mix” in base load production of any southeastern state. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re in the top 25% of energy producing states, and we get our energy from a diverse set of fuels: hydro-electric, nuclear, coal and renewables. Each one of the industries creates jobs for our state, and each receives industry-specific tax incentives to ensure lower consumer costs, and higher worker retention rates.”

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