Our View: Secrecy Makes a Strong Showing in Legislature

Opelika-Auburn News Editorial | Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2014 9:22 pm

Secrecy in government breeds corruption. Like so much dung spread across an already-fertile field to nourish a valued money crop, secrecy brings life to all manner of lucrative wrongdoing, encouraging it to grow, take root and flourish.

Efforts to promote secrecy seem to be on the rise in Alabama – especially in our Legislature. That’s sad, considering how, at the beginning of the current legislative session, a number of lawmakers expressed enthusiasm for a bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and designed to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act.

As Sen. Ward pointed out, a series of Alabama Supreme Court decisions had rendered the original Open Meetings Act largely ineffectual. One ruling allowed governing bodies to get around the law by holding so-called “serial meetings.” In other words, they could break down into smaller groups and meet in secret because each group did not constitute a quorum of the whole.

If enacted, Ward’s measure would eliminate serial meetings. It would impose penalties on violators and allow private citizens more power to challenge violations of the law.

We have the greatest respect and admiration for Sen. Ward and his efforts to promote transparency and serve the public’s interests.

However, that bill, which passed the Senate, now lies stalled in the House. We can only hope our lawmakers do the right thing. We will see.

Perhaps more disturbing is the speed with which another bill – one promoting secrecy -- raced through our Legislature and now appears on the verge of winning approval.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, has sponsored legislation that would keep secret the names of companies that supply the state with lethal injection drugs for executions. Greer said Alabama and other states are having trouble obtaining the drugs because pharmacies now fear lawsuits from death penalty opponents.

“The Senate Health Committee approved the confidentiality bill (March 19) in a 7-0 vote,” the Associated Press reported. “However, the committee added an amendment that said the names would be confidential unless a judge ordered their release. Sen. Cam Ward, who offered the amendment, said he supported keeping the names confidential, but had concerns about giving blanket confidentiality to any company.”

Once again, Sen. Ward demonstrated a noble wariness of secrecy.

But we wish he had gone further. We wish he and his fellow senators had rejected the bill. We wish more lawmakers would embrace this simple principle: Democratic governments do not spend taxpayers’ dollars without letting taxpayers know who is receiving their money and what exactly they are getting in return for their money.

Failing to follow this principle allows for all kinds of wrongdoing.

We are convinced Rep. Greer has nothing but the best of intentions. We believe he wants to preserve the state’s ability to carry out justice. We are certain he desires only to spare the state’s suppliers of lethal injection drugs from lawsuit abuse, but pursuing other avenues toward tort reform surely would be better for the public’s interest than ensuring nearly unlimited secrecy in the state’s dealings with a few select companies.

Secret dealings with private businesses and secret meetings among public officials make poor governance. They are not needed -- if serving the public’s interest is the goal of governance. They are, in fact, hazardous to the public good.

If the lethal injection drug bill passes and the strengthened Open Meetings Act measure fails, someone in state government will smell the opportunities. You can bet that same pungent aroma will draw like flies any business or lobbying interests eager to enrich both themselves and any “public servants” willing to do their bidding for a price.

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