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December 27, 2014

Teeth are needed in Open Meetings Act

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Posted: Monday, January 27, 2014 7:37 pm

The excuses and apologies for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act of 2005 are all too familiar.

They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They thought they were abiding by the law. It won’t happen again.

And the shoot-the-messenger resentment when we report on it is also a familiar refrain. The newspaper is just digging up dirt; we’re barking up the wrong tree—as if reporters aren’t supposed to dig, and watchdogs aren’t supposed to bark.

The latest controversy over the Act in our coverage area occurred recently in Riverside. In case you missed it, the city council held public interviews of candidates for the city clerk’s position there—as they should—but when they decided to vote unanimously to hire one of those candidates, they did so with no discussion--at least no public discussion--and strangely enough, the candidate they chose was the only one attending the meeting. The public was shut out of hearing the deliberations involved in choosing someone for one of the most important positions in municipal government. Emails between elected officials were released to this newspaper in response to a public information request.

We’re not questioning their selection, and we’re not suggesting there were any backroom deals. It simply appears to be another case of a public body skirting the openness we believe is needed for self-government to work at its best.

The state’s Act specifically forbids the use of electronic communications to circumvent the law, and that appears to be what happened. That part of the law is clear, but the law is flawed in other ways.

Two years ago members of the Montgomery County board of education held a series of “serial meetings” to decide whether to make their interim superintendent their permanent superintendent. Serial meetings occur when members of a body meet in numbers short of a quorum to discuss business expected to come before the body for deliberation. They didn’t want to discuss his job performance in public, so when they decided not to hire him, neither he nor the public knew why. His attorney filed suit against the board for having an illegal meeting, but the Alabama Supreme Court said the way the law was written, serial meetings were not prohibited.

Similarly, an employee of Alabama Public Television was fired and he filed suit. The court ruled that he had no standing to file suit because any penalty the board might have to pay for violating the law would go to the state as a civil fine, not to him.

In another challenge to closed meetings, citizens filed suit over the secrecy surrounding the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act by the state legislature last year. The court ruled the legislature is authorized by the state’s constitution to set its own rules of operation and is not required to meet in public.

In other words, the public be damned.

A bill currently in the state legislature would address all three of those flaws, and hopefully put some teeth in a law that is something of a toothless tiger. As written, the bill even provides that any private citizen can file suit against a public body breaking the law, and potentially be paid the penalty.

The bill has had its first readings in both houses of the legislature, and has the governor’s support, so we are optimistic about its passage.

Our form of government isn’t the most efficient way to conduct business. It’s noisy and messy, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable but this is the path Americans have chosen, and openness by those serving on deliberative bodies comes with the territory.

We appreciate those who offer themselves for public service. Most appointed boards do not pay a salary at all, and people elected to most councils and commissions—even state legislators—are paid modest amounts for the time and energy they are expected to devote to their jobs. Yet our system of government could not function without them.

But they need to remember that it is the people’s government, not theirs, and the people have a right to know how and why decisions are made.

The bill working its way through the legislature, if its teeth aren’t pulled before passage, should help serve as a reminder.

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