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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