Sunshine Laws: Public's right
Published 3:12 am Monday, January 31, 2005
Being called to be a public official, either elected or appointed, is a great sacrifice on a regular basis.
Many of the officials receive little or no salary and are often drawn to office by a desire to serve their community.
There are many sacrifices involved in serving the public, but it's always rewarding to receive the approval of the public.
But little do many public officials know is that they are doing the community they serve a disservice.
Many officials don't understand their obligations under Alabama's public access laws, therefore, the community isn't informed as well as they could be.
In fairness, many of these officials don't have the time, especially if they are part-time, to learn all the components of the public's right to government meetings and access records.
The media isn't any different than any average Joe seeking access to records. In fact, the media is made up of several average Joe's and Jane's, in search of the right answers for their readers or listeners. The media acts as an information center of sorts for those citizens who can't or won't ask the questions they so eagerly want to ask.
By attending city council meetings, board meetings and other various meetings, the press is able to provide that information for the public and deliver it on their doorstep the next morning or transmit it through the television later that evening.
On several occasions, mayors, council members and board members have tried to withhold requested information or "pull the wool" over the media's eyes or lens. Being perceived as nosy by just trying to serve the community as they do isn't it at all. When information is not provided, the officials then learn of the laws of the land and are forced to fork it over.
As a member of the press, it is a responsibility to inform the public and public officials the obligations of the government when it comes to open records and open meetings. Thursday night while attending the annual Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce's banquet, guest speaker and Alabama State Treasurer Kay Ivey, mentioned five points she believes are important to help citizens keep abreast of the state's financial status. One of her points was that citizens should be aware of what's going on in state government and it should willingly provide that information. Her speech inspired this column.
The fundamental rights of access in Alabama, which apply to the media and citizens, include:
n The right to attend any session of any governmental body that is charged with the disbursement of public funds or to which is delegated any judicial or legislative function.
n Protection against unreasonable executive sessions, in which a governing body meets in private. Such meetings are legal only when the board is discussing the 'good name and character" of a specific individual person or when the board is discussing pending legal matters with its attorney or counsel. Any decision and/or vote by a public board, including on personal matters, must be done in public.
Although the courts have ruled informal meetings of board members before or after meetings acceptable, no business of the board may be conducted in any way.
For instance, the Atmore City Council, the Escambia County Commission or the Escambia County Board of Education can hold pre-board meetings, which are still open to the public, but cannot perform any business of any type.
n The right to know the vote of individual government officials on any given matter. Votes must be cast in public session and not be secret ballot.
n The right to advance notice of meetings of any governmental board or body, except in bona-fide emergency situations.
The State of Alabama also has laws protecting the public's right to inspect public records and obtain copies of those records.
Public records include any written, typed or printed-papers, letters, documents and maps used for any public business or in the courts. It also applies to any document or paper filed with, in or by any public court, office or officer.
Furthermore, government bodies cannot charge a fee to inspect public records and if possible the agency should provide a copy of the record for free to the public.
It is the media's job to inform the public, as it is the job of public officials to make information available to media so they can make it public knowledge.
It is not a nosy reporter craze; it is a right as a citizen.
Adam Prestridge is the president and publisher of Atmore Newspapers, Inc. His column appears weekly.