Lawmakers seek to strengthen Open Meetings Act

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New legislation aims to strengthen the state's Open Meetings Act.

New legislation aims to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Gov. Robert Bentley and legislators Thursday announced a bill they said would strengthen provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Act, which critics said was weakened by three recent Alabama Supreme Court decisions.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana and Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster and filed Wednesday, would clarify that the Alabama Legislature and its committees must meet in public; prohibits meetings in small groups without proper notice and makes it clear that citizens have the right to bring action against a governmental body.

“I think it’s so important that any organization, any entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars should always be open to the press and open to the people,” Bentley said at a press conference Thursday morning.

The law was affected by a number of recent Alabama Supreme Court decisions on the law, including one that originated from the Montgomery County Board of Education. In 2012, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Montgomery BOE did not violate the Open Meetings Act when members of the board discussed a report from then-Superintendent Barbara Thompson on her goals and objectives for the school year.

The court ruled that “meeting,” as defined in the act, only covered gatherings where a majority of board members were present. The court also ruled that back-to-back serial meetings that were not public and involved a majority of the board members — but no more than three at a time — did not violate the Act, due to the lack of language on that front.

In two cases decided last September, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that two Alabama Public Television executives who lost their jobs did not having standing to bring a claim under the Open Meetings Act. The executives argued that their termination was a direct result of the commission violating the law, but the court found that their request for civil fines and because there was no allegation that the board governing APT was about to violate the act and because any fines assessed would be paid to the state, not the plaintiffs.

In the second case, which involved the fallout from the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, the Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature “has the unlimited power to determine the rules governing its own proceedings,” barring violations of the state Constitution.

“The Alabama Constitution does not require the Legislature to conduct its meetings in public,” the court ruled 8 to 0.

The legislation introduced Thursday would effectively reverse those decisions. It would require the Legislature to conduct meetings in public unless a public vote was taken to go into executive session; says that any violation of the law “results in a concrete and particularized injury to every citizen of Alabama;” clarifies the definition of committee and subcommittee and bans serial meetings.

Ward said the bill “re-affirms the 1901 Constitution” and returns the Open Meetings Act to its original form.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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