Why keep proposed rules secret?

Published 9:24 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2009

“The press and public are entitled to the documents and agendas made available to members of public boards at the time they are made available to the board members.”

Alabama Opinion of Attorney General 2000-252 (Sept. 29, 2000)

Call us cynical if you will, but we are immediately suspicious when governing bodies seek to withhold information from both the media and the public.

The Covington County Commission’s refusal this week to disclose its proposed rules for bingo brings this immediately to mind.

Constitutional Amendment 565 – approved by statewide vote in 1994 – authorizes charitable bingo in Covington County and authorizes the commission to “promulgate rules and regulations for issuing permits or licenses and for operating bingo games within the county.”

In the 15 years since it passed, the county hasn’t addressed the issue, but has instead relied upon rules passed by the legislature in 1993. That enabling legislation authorizes the sheriff to issue $100 permits for bingo.

Bingo has changed in those 15 years and now represents big profits through electronic gaming. With more than one company expressing an interest in placing electronic machines in Covington County, the financially strapped commission is interested in getting a share of those profits.

Earlier this year, they unanimously asked that the 1993 laws be repealed. A local bill was introduced in the current session of the legislature, but has not come out of committee.

Last week in this space, we urged the commission to set rules governing bingo rather than “washing its hands of it” as a frustrated Chairman Lynn Sasser had promised. We have not changed our position.

We were pleased that the matter was on the agenda for Monday’s commission meeting. Indeed, we have learned, that the commissioners last Friday received a 13 to 15-page document setting out proposed rules. But the matter was removed from the agenda on Monday to give commissioners more time to review those proposed rules.

The county’s attorney stated that “The purpose of them is to give the commission more power to regulate bingo. It’s not gambling. It’s bingo set out in the constitutional amendment 565, which specifically states the commission has the authority to implement rules and regulations.”

A Star-News staff member has twice asked for a copy of the proposed rules. We were told that the proposed rules weren’t public record because they had not yet been acted upon and fell under attorney-client confidentiality. The Covington Baptist Association was given the same response.

In essence, the county is saying “you’ll know what the rules are when we pass them.” As a result, the county’s citizens are being excluded from the deliberative process. Alabama’s Open Meetings laws and its Open Records laws, which date back to 1915, are specifically designed to include citizens in that process.

The legislature does not pass laws that haven’t seen the light of day. In fact their proposals are published and reviewed before committees that provide opportunity for public input.

The Alabama attorney general’s opinion written in 2000 and printed above states that the press and the public are entitled to documents when they are received by public boards.

Why wouldn’t the county commissioners want the light of day shining on their proposals? Why wouldn’t they want input from the voters they serve?

It makes us wonder what they’re trying to hide.