Officials applaud #039;Sunshine Law#039;

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Alabama Legislature had no dissent and neither did Gov. Bob Riley as he signed the state's new open meetings law on Wednesday, replacing a 90-year-old statute that had been weakened by court rulings and never been enforced in a criminal case.

The new law, popularly referred to as the 'Sunshine Law' by its supporters, gives both the public and press greater access to governmental meetings in municipalities across the state.

Probate Judge Jim Perdue applauds the legislation, noting that Crenshaw County residents should make themselves available to attend these meetings.

"Citizens should get involved," he said. "Too many times people only come to a council or commission meeting when they're mad about something. I think if they would come regularly they would come to appreciate some of the decisions made by the people there. There's a lot of time that goes into making these decisions. I wish the citizens would get more involved because that's not anything but good for the county."

Among other things, the law states that public notice must be given 24 hours in advance of any meeting and one hour in case an emergency meeting is called. Vote by secret ballot is not allowed and the new law restricts members with its use of the 'good character' clause to shut the doors on the public.

Under the old legislation, boards and committees were allowed to go into an executive session with the specified intent of discussing the character of an employee. Often times, though, this was used as a loophole to discuss public matters.

Wednesday's law allows boards to discuss job performance behind closed doors of certain lower level employees. The job performance of most management-level workers must be discussed in public.

Those individuals who violate the law can be fined up to $1000.

Luverne Councilman Al Snellgrove welcomes the 'Sunshine Law.'

"I have no problem with open meetings," he said. "Basically all that we do concerns the citizens of Luverne. I want the citizens to know what is going on and I think our mayor (Joe Rex Sport) does a good job of welcoming people to give their opinion."

County Commissioner Charlie Sankey said the new law is 'beneficial' for public officials also.

"You don't get the finger pointing and the plotting beforehand," he said. "It puts you in a situation where you make decisions based on what's best for your constituents and not because of what another politician wants. What politicians should do is listen to the voices of their constituency and whom they represent. But sometimes politicians may get together, listen to each other and leave the people out. This law though is almost like a 'trust' device."

Riley declared March 13-19 as 'Sunshine Week', to herald the signing of the bill into law. 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 for "the people who own the government of the state of Alabama."

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

"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," King said.

The new law goes into effect on Oct. 1.

– the Associated Press contributed to this report.