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November 22, 2014

Open meetings act sails through Senate

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Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 6:00 am

Commendations are in order for the Alabama State Senate, and especially State Sen. Cam Ward, President Pro-Tempore Sen. Del Marsh who provided the leadership to get a revision to the state’s Open Meetings Act through their chamber of the Legislature.

The 2005 act was intended to set out standards for the conduct of meetings of public boards and elected bodies to help ensure transparency about how they handle the public’s business. A series of rulings by the State Supreme Court disregarded the intent and spirit of the law. Those rulings declared meetings of the state legislature do not have to be open to the public, that members of public bodies could meet together in serial meetings to avoid discussing public business in public, and that members of the public had no standing to file suit to complain about violations of the parts of the Act that the Court hadn’t yet declared null and void.

Ward’s bill, written with the cooperation of the Alabama Press Association, Association of County Commissions, League of Municipalities, Association of School Boards and others is intended to close those loopholes and put some teeth back into the law. They worked together to reach an agreement on language that protects public access to the governmental process.

The bill would leave intact provisions for executive sessions. Executive sessions permit bodies to meet outside of public view to discuss certain types of issues—to discuss lawsuits with an attorney, or to protect the identity of an undercover informant, for example. But the bill would prohibit serial meetings, require legislators to hold their meetings in public, and allow people to file suit for violations. The person filing suit would also keep any damages the court might award, up to $1,000.

The bill can’t guarantee that public boards and bodies will always abide by the law, but it can reinforce the state’s commitment to the public’s right to know.

Now it’s up to the House to pass its version, sponsored by Sen. Mike Hill. With the legislative session now past its halfway point, we hope to see our State Representatives see it makes it to the governor’s desk.

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