Senate approves bill to strengthen Open Meetings Act

Published 4:09 pm Friday, March 7, 2014

Alabama Senate Bill 191, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R- Alabaster, passed by a vote of 26-1 on Feb. 27.

The bill restores provisions of the Open Meetings Act that had been weakened by recent court rulings.

The government transparency legislation, a top priority of Gov. Robert Bentley according to Ward, clears up and redefines aspects of the Open Meetings Act that were struck down by the Alabama Supreme Court.

“We have to make sure that government is open and honest, and a large part of that is being available and accountable to the news media,” Ward said in a release. “The fourth estate does a public service by shining a light on the murky machinations of governments. We don’t need any elected or appointed body in the state trying to circumvent their access.”

The court held that legislative bodies could avoid public meetings by forming subcommittees that deliberate the proposed matters in committee, but wait until the entire body meets again to vote on them.

They also held that a citizen did not have the right to sue a commission or legislative body, but the bill says civil actions can be brought by any Alabama resident.

Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason thanked the Senate for making the bill a priority.

“We want to thank the groups that worked with us to reach an agreement on language that protects public access to the governmental process as well as outlines a practical method for the meeting process,” Mason said in a release.

Mason said the groups working on the bills included the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the Alabama League of Municipalities, the Alabama Association of School Boards, and others who were all instrumental in passing the original bill back in 2005.

“We are dedicated to ensuring the public’s right to know, and have direct access to, the way our elected officials conduct the people’s business,” Ward said in a release. “This is a step in the right direction to restoring the intent of the Open Meetings Act, and guaranteeing the constitutionality of those provisions.”

The transparency legislation now moves to the House for debate and approval, and then to Bentley’s desk for signature.