Closed meeting upsets residents

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Approximately 20 River Falls residents who attended the town council meeting Tuesday were up in arms when they found council members meeting behind closed doors before the scheduled 6 p.m. meeting started.

Many of those residents questioned the legality of the meeting before a Star-News reporter challenged the mayor and council members.

Alabama’s Open Meetings Act requires that governing bodies meet in public, with certain exceptions. Each of those exceptions requires that the council first meet in open session, declare the reason for a closed session, and vote to go into closed session. All votes must be taken in public.

Public bodies may go behind closed doors to:

• Discuss the job performance, general character, professional competence and mental or physical health of any individuals, including that body’s employees. However, the body cannot hold closed meetings to discuss job performance of an elected official or of public employees who make more than $50,000.

• Discuss litigation with their attorney.

• Hold discussions that would disclose the identity of an undercover informer.

• Discuss matters of commerce in which the body is competing against private entities.

• Discuss security plans and procedures for public buildings.

• Discuss negotiations between the body and a group of public employees.

• Discuss negotiations to buy, sell or lease real property.

Mayor Patricia Gunter first said she and the council members – Gary Wages, Mattie Freeney, Cleveland Harris and Robert Clark – who met before the meeting were not deliberating, and therefore were not in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

However, after the meeting, she said they were discussing a customer’s water bill.

The Act also prohibits governing bodies from holding private discussions about public business via email.

Both Gunter and Freeney said they did not know they were in violation of the act.

In actual business, the council:

• Heard from Central Pipe and Supply about their version of radio-read water meters;

• Heard from Rick Clifton of the Covington County Economic Development Commission;

• Freeney said the streets, park and cemetery board was in the process of discussing enforcing a 2001 ordinance that addresses homes in disrepair.