Open Meetings law gets revamped

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 17, 2005

Gov. Bob Riley signed the Open Meetings Bill on Tuesday that replaces Alabama’s 90-year-old open meetings law.

The new statute spells out what meetings must be open to the public and also stipulates fines for those who violate the law.

&uot;In Alabama, the days of citizens being shut out of public meetings are over,&uot; Riley said shortly before signing the state’s new open meetings law.

In a signing ceremony in the historic Old House Chamber at the State Capitol, Governor Riley was joined by bill sponsors Representative Blaine Galliher and Senator Zeb Little, as well as officials with Attorney General Troy King’s office and advocacy organizations that helped get the bill through the Legislature.

Governor Riley noted that efforts to strengthen Alabama’s open meetings law have failed in the Legislature for the past 12 years.

&uot;But thanks to the people’s demand for greater accountability, and thanks to the work of the bill’s sponsors, our Attorney General and the organizations represented here today, 2005 is a different story,&uot; Riley said.

Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, said he was pleased to be a co-sponsor of the bill and is pleased it is now a law.

&uot;This bill very clearly, more than ever, opens up meetings for the public to know exactly what their public officials are doing and why they’re doing it,&uot; he said.

&uot;While the bill was in debate, I read some of the other state open meeting laws and they were ambiguous, but I believe this bill clarifies all and will open more governmental meetings than in any previous legislation.&uot;

The new law is &uot;another step toward making government in Alabama more accountable, more transparent and more open than it’s ever been,&uot; Governor Riley said.

The bill passed the Senate with a 32-0 vote in favor of the new law and that followed a 98-0 vote by the House last Tuesday.

The new law is clear on what circumstances that public boards are allowed to hold meetings behind closed doors. It also specifies how much public notice must be given before a public meeting, and it makes it clear that committees and subcommittees of public boards are expected to hold public meetings.

Under the new law, citizens have the right to sue public officials who hold closed meetings and make those officials liable for fines.

Ironically, Alabama’s old law, while thought to be one of the strongest at one time in the nation, was never used to prosecute any body or person for violations.

Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, said Alabama’s 1915 open meetings law was simply a statement of principles and was short on specifics. The new legislation sets out when meetings must be open, when they can be closed and how public notice must be notified.

&uot;The law gives them a playbook to do the right thing,&uot; she said.

Mason said the impetus for the legislation was a 2003 ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court that &uot;really gutted our law.&uot; The Supreme Court said the open meetings law did not apply to committee meetings of the Auburn University board of trustees unless a quorum of the full board was present.

Riley declared this week, March 13-19, as &uot;Sunshine Week&uot; in Alabama as a way of showing his support for the new bill.

The legislation was a priority of Attorney General Troy King and was supported by Riley. Both said it helps provide more accountability at a time when the public is often cynical of government officials.

King has lobbied hard for the bill since becoming attorney general. He said he sees the legislation as a victory not just for news organizations, but also for &uot;the people who own the government of the state of Alabama.&uot;

&uot;It brings clarity to the law. People who want access to those in public office will now have a clear understanding of what’s permissible and what is not permissible,&uot; King said.

He said he believes the new law will also help government officials from small town city councils to the governor’s office.

&uot;I believe most people in public life want to follow the law. If they know what’s in the law, they are not going to violate it,&uot; King said.

He said the law allows citizens to go to court to sue officials, who can then be fined for conducting business in closed meetings.

&uot;They have a personal stake in not violating it,&uot; King said.

Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, and Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, worked for several years to pass the bill.

&uot;Our 1915 law was vague and over the years the courts created so many loopholes that needed to be closed. This bill should help restore the public’s faith in government,&uot; Little said Friday.

Galliher said there have been efforts in the Legislature for at least 12 years to rewrite the open meetings law, which was adopted in 1915.

While the bill passed the House and Senate without dissenting votes,

Galliher said lawmakers have been wary of the bill in the past and have sometimes worked behind closed doors to kill it. He said he believes it was pressure from the public that finally got the measure passed.

&uot;Those in leadership positions realize the mood of the people is for more open government and accountability. I think that’s what brought about passage of this bill,&uot; Galliher said.

The APA, through its counsel Dennis Bailey and former executive director Bill Keller, has been working for years to strengthen the open meeting law, particularly since a Supreme Court ruling said meetings of committees and subcommittees of the Auburn University Board of Trustees did not have to be open. The new law specifies that committee meetings must be open.

Felicia Mason, the executive director of the APA, said her group’s mission now is to educate Alabama residents about the new law before it takes effect Oct. 1.

&uot;If we do a good job of educating them, they will understand they have the right to attend meetings. The biggest thing that will help the public is the notice provision. They now can find out when and where government bodies are meeting,&uot; Mason said.

The Alabama League of Municipalities also plans to hold training sessions for city officials and city council members around the state to make sure they understand how the new law works.

&uot;Most of the things in the new act we’ve been advising them to do for years,&uot; said Ken Smith, deputy director and chief counsel for the league.

The old law only allowed for private meetings to discuss the &uot;good name and character&uot; of an individual. The new law explains what &uot;good name and character&uot; means and spells out other specific reasons for holding a closed-door meeting _such as discussing a pending real estate deal for an economic development project or discussing security issues.

&uot;It’s a vast improvement over what we did have, which was just a statement of policy that things ought to be open,&uot; said Ed Mullins, a University of Alabama journalism professor and founder of the Alabama Center for Open Government. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Mullins said it was often easy for government officials to meet privately in the past.

&uot;I remember the days of trying to get information about a meeting and getting turned down,&uot; Mullins said.

He said it’s important now to make sure that not just news organizations, but the public understands the importance of open meetings.

&uot;I think sometimes in the past, the public was on the side of those who wanted to keep things secret,&uot; Mullins said.

Mitchell, who strives for open government in his district, said the time was right.

&uot;We’re always talking about putting sunshine on the government and in all the years I’ve served I’ve seen a reluctance on some of my peers’ part until this bill came along,&uot; he said.

&uot;The time was right and the people wanted this new law and I’ve always tried to be open and above board with the people I serve.&uot;

The Associated Press contributed to this report.