New open meetings law increases public access
Leada Gore, Hartselle Enquirer
You probably won't hear this often, but the Alabama Legislature has good timing.
The Legislature approved a new open meetings law last week, just in time for this week's nationwide Sunshine Week celebration, held to draw attention to the issue of public access in the state.
The new law, sponsored by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, and Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, rewrote an existing 90-year-old statute, which press officials and some state lawmakers criticized as vague.
The recent changes received the support of the state Attorney General's office, the Association of County Commissions and the Alabama League of Municipalities.
Attorney General Troy King said the changes help build "bridges of trust" between government and the people.
"This legislation will give the owners of our government – the people of Alabama – the ability to see and understand the actions taken by our elected officials and the ability to hold them accountable for their actions," King said. "By doing so, we are re-engaging our people in their government."
Under the old law, governmental bodies were allowed to meet behind closed doors to discuss "good name and character," though what exactly constituted "good name and character" was not specific. The new law spells out what "good name and character" means, stipulating the public can be excluded only if "the general reputation and character, physical condition or mental health" of a person is discussed. Governmental groups cannot meet behind closed doors to discuss an employee's performance, salary, compensation or benefits.
The law also allows for closed door meetings to discuss pending or threatened lawsuits with an attorney; criminal investigations; security plans; or the competence of employees who are not public officials.
No executive session is ever required, the law states, and the person whose good name and character is being discussed can request the meeting be held in public. A majority of the group's members must approve meeting behind closed doors and a legal reason must be given before doing so.
The new law also stipulates exactly what constitutes a meeting. Now, groups are required to provide notice of any meeting of a majority of the group, even if it's a committee or subcommittee of a larger body. The law does allow for exceptions for what it described as "chance meetings" at social functions, conventions or workshops.
A notice of a meeting must now be posted seven days before a regularly schedule meeting and 24 hours before a specially called meeting. There is a stipulation that allows for a one-hour notice before an emergency meeting. The notice must be posted on bulletin boards at the courthouse, city hall or school administration building where the meeting will be held. People can also request that meeting notices be e-mailed or faxed to them.
No votes can be taken in a closed-door meeting and no secret ballot voting is allowed.
Failure to comply with the new rules will personally cost those who violate them. Fines of up to $1,000 per violation may be imposed on each person violating the open meetings law and the fines, as well as the attorney's costs associated with them, will be paid by the individual. In the past, the governmental body was responsible for the fines.