By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
Early Thursday morning in the Capitol auditorium, Governor Bentley announced that he will support new legislation that he says, if passed, would strengthen Alabama’s Open Meetings Act.
The law, which requires elected bodies to meet in public, was effectively gutted over the last two years by a series of Alabama Supreme Court decisions. In those cases, the state’s highest court ruled that the law did not apply to the legislature, who has “unlimited power” to decide their own governing rules, and that it did not apply where only a minority of members of the body were in attendance, even if there were multiple meetings conducted consecutively with different members, a practice called “serial meetings.”
The proposed legislation, which is being sponsored by Republican Mike Hill in the House of Representatives and Republican Cam Ward in the Senate, would clarify the legislative intent of the law and aim at addressing the loopholes bored into the law by the Alabama Supreme Court.
“I think it’s so important,” Governor Bentley said at the press conference, “that any organization or entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars should always be open to the press, and should always be open to the people. It’s very important. Accountability is important.”
Ironically, much of the controversy surrounding the Open Meeting Act and the litigation involved centered around the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, a law passed last year that allows tax credits for parents whose children attend “failing” schools in order to transfer them to a successful public or private school. Some say the bill was privately altered far beyond its original form behind closed doors.
“In my opinion the Accountability Act already violated [the Open Meetings law],” said Harvard Law graduate and longtime Alabama Senator Hank Sanders (D) of Selma, who also claims that the proposed changes were nothing new under the sun.
“The previous law did cover the Legislature, we admitted that it covered it and we have been practicing by it until they violated it.,” he said. “I don’t see how this law is going to make a real difference. If the Supreme Court says you are not covered by the Open Meetings law, you aren’t, unless we are going to somehow get a constitutional amendment.”
The announced legislation does not involve changes to the state constitution; the proposal is only to amend the Open Meetings Act.
When asked if he thought the revisions would get through the legislature this session, Sanders said that, I see it as passing because it is an election year and there is some heat out there about how all of this took place [Accountability Act]. So, I expect that it will end up passing but I don’t expect that it will do any good.”
Governor Bentley’s press conference came on the same day as the State Department of Education released a new list of schools labeled “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act.