Alabama Legislature passes Open Meetings bill

Published 3:22 pm Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Alabama Legislature passed a bill on Wednesday to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The bill was sent to Gov. Robert Bentley to sign late Wednesday afternoon.

The House voted 91-4 to pass the bill on Tuesday, prohibiting boards and committees from holding a series of meetings of a few members behind closed doors.

It would also tighten the state law requiring county commissions, city councils and other governing bodies to meet in public.

The Alabama Senate voted 30-0 to pass the bill on March 18, but because the House made some changes to the bill, it had to go back to the Senate for final approval.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and the House bill was sponsored by Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne.

“I think whenever you can have more transparency, it is healthy for government,” said Ward on Thursday morning. “One of the primary intents of the bill is to put an end to serial meetings.”

The bill restores the Open Meetings Act to its “original intent,” according to the Alabama Press Association.

The Press Association said the legislation became necessary after three Alabama Supreme Court rulings over the past two years severely crippled the existing law.

“Most damaging was the decision that essentially allowed for secret meetings as long as a quorum was not present,” according to the Press Association. “In some cases, the public is only witness to a vote because all of the deliberation is done in small, serial meetings prior to a public meeting.”

Ward said the bill would now allow a citizen the option to file a lawsuit against individuals who might be violating the law.

“This bill cracks down on the notion of serial meetings where two people get together and make a conscience effort to subvert any type of debate or discussion,” Ward said.

Passed in 1915, Alabama’s first Open Meetings Law was one of the oldest in the country.

According to the Press Association, most states did not pass legislation related to open meetings until after the scandal of Watergate in the 1970s.

The current law was passed in 2005, and was a collaborative effort between many groups to create a guideline for public meetings.

Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason said on Thursday that the Alabama Legislature sent a strong message that they support the public’s “right to know” and participate in their government.

“It is important to every Alabama citizen,” Mason said. “We appreciate Sen. Ward and Rep. Davis for their hard work and dedication in moving this bill forward.”