Open meetings bill headed for Senate
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 24, 2014 | 3179 views |  0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — A bill designed to shore up Alabama's open meetings law may be heard in the Alabama Senate as early as Tuesday, as time ticks toward the end of the legislative session.

"I've been working all weekend to get everyone lined up on this," said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Ward is the sponsor of a bill that, supporters claim, would fill holes in the state's open meetings law that were created by Alabama Supreme Court rulings.

In recent years, the court has ruled that residents of the state have no standing to sue in most open records cases, and to allow "serial meetings" in which members of an elected body meet in twos or threes to discuss business before holding a full meeting.

In a dispute over a much-debated education bill last year, the justices also ruled that the Alabama Legislature doesn't have to hold its meetings in public.

That ruling was too much for some open-meetings advocates, who noted that the drafters of the constitution mandated that the doors of the Legislature be open during the session in 1901.

Gov. Robert Bentley and the Alabama Press Association supported Ward's bill, which reiterates the open-doors wording in the constitution and allows people to sue, and exact punitive damages, when elected officials improperly meet in private.

Still, the bill isn't exactly what it was when Ward unveiled it a month ago. Various groups of state officials, including the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, opposed some aspects of Ward's proposed ban on serial meetings, citing concerns that public officials could be sued even for chance encounters that someone interpreted as a secret meeting.

When the bill passed out of a Senate committee earlier this month, it was a compromise version that would allow elected officials to hold serial meetings "to discuss background and education information."

That new version would also allow serial meetings when an elected or appointed body is searching for someone to fill an executive position. Those meetings wouldn't have to be done in public until a search is narrowed down to three candidates.

Even then, the Association of County Commissions maintained its opposition to the bill. The group opposed a "loser pays" provision that would have public bodies picking up the plaintiff's legal fees if a suit is successful.

Ward said there's no "loser pays" a new version of the bill, which he hopes to introduce as a substitute bill in the Senate this week. He said he's been negotiating with six or seven groups over the past few days to line up support.

As long as "loser pays" is gone, the Association of County Commissions won't fight the bill, said director Sonny Brasfield.

"We're not opposed to the legislation," he said. "It's not our job to pass it, either."

Alabama Press Association director Felicia Mason said the bill isn't ideal, but it's better than what exists now.

"Usually when everybody's a little unhappy, it's a good bill," she said.

For proponents of the bill, the clock is ticking. The 30-day legislative session hit its halfway point last week and the Legislature has yet to pass either a General Fund or Education Trust Fund budget. Both houses are expected to delve into budget debates by Thursday and other bills are likely to take a back seat until they're finished.

The Senate convenes Tuesday at 2 p.m.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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