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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