Senate committee approves bill aimed at strengthening Open Meetings Act

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Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon approved a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s Open Meetings Act, following rulings from the Alabama Supreme Court that critics said severely weakened it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would require the Legislature to conduct its meetings in public; gives standing to citizens to challenge violations of the act and bans serial meetings.

“There are three recent Alabama Supreme Court decisions that basically gutted the Open Meetings Act we passed in 1995,” Ward said in committee.

In 2012, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Montgomery BOE did not violate the Open Meetings Act when it had two or three board members at a time get together in a series of meetings with then-Superintendent Barbara Thompson so she could explain her goals and objectives for the school year without the public being able to hear the discussion.

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 ultimately 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 also made rulings weakening the law’s power.

Two Alabama Public Television executives who lost their jobs contended the commission that terminated them had purposefully met in secret to make the decision so the public would not know their plans or hear the discussions. But the Alabama Supreme Court ruled the two employees did not have standing to bring a claim under the Open Meetings Act even if the commission had violated the law. Among other findings, the court said the pair could not receive civil penalties under the law and because any fines assessed against the commission for breaking the law would be paid to the state, not the plaintiffs, the two lacked standing to bring the suit.

In the second case, which involved the fallout from the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, the Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature could not have violated the Open Meetings Act because it “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 bill, which attempts to reverse all three decisions, had been held up over the past several weeks due to negotiations with universities and other bodies as to what constitutes a serial meeting. In the language adopted, a serial meeting would essentially have to be a non-quorum meeting where members deliberate business in attempt to get around the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.

Committee members were all supportive of changes; however, Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, asked if the law would ban members from polling other members for votes. Ward said he did not believe it would.

Dennis Bailey of the Alabama Press Association praised the bill.

“It’s a lot better than what we’ve currently got,” he said.

The legislation now moves onto the Senate.

– posted by Brian Lyman

(Updated at 4 p.m.; Press Association says there would be no conflict from polling members of a governmental body.)

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