Governor wants stronger open meetings law

Published 8:56 am Friday, January 17, 2014

On Thursday, Gov. Robert Bentley announced his support for new legislation that will strengthen Alabama’s Open Meetings Law.

“Transparency promotes government accountability, and as elected officials, we are held accountable for our decisions by the people we serve,” Bentley said in a statement. “It is important that our state’s open meetings law allows the public to see and be involved in government decisions. The goal of this new legislation is to further strengthen Alabama’s Open Meetings Law.”

The legislation will propose three legislative amendments to the current 2005 Open Meetings Law:

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• It expressly states that meetings in small groups without proper notice to discuss issues that will come before the full body is not permitted. There are times when government business requires closed-door meetings, and the current law provides for those situations.

• Clarifies that any Alabama citizen has a right to bring an action against a governmental body if it believes it has violated the law, and any penalties assessed are payable to the plaintiff.

• The legislation reflects that the Alabama Constitution requires the Alabama Legislature to meet with its doors open to the public unless a vote is taken in public that secrecy is required in certain circumstances.

The legislation, introduced on Wednesday, is co-sponsored by state Sen. Cam Ward and state Rep. Mike Hill of Columbiana.

“Transparency is crucial to maintaining the public’s trust in our government institutions,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said. “We must do everything we can to ensure that we have the highest level of open access in the operation of government.”

“Meeting one on one to avoid discussing public business in public was never intended to be an acceptable practice under the Open Meetings Law, except where expressly permitted,” Hill, R-Columbiana, said. “I was a co-sponsor of the rewrite of our Open Meetings Law in 2005, and as is the case with most comprehensive laws, some areas need to be better defined and clarified. That is my goal with this new legislation.”

The Alabama Press Association, a statewide trade association representing daily and non-daily newspapers in Alabama , also supports the new legislation.

“These simple amendments only clarify the original intent of the Alabama Legislature to have a strong and effective open meetings law that provides a window into the deliberative process of their government,” Dennis Bailey, general counsel of the Alabama Press Association, said.