By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, March 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report to the Open Meetings Act, S.B. 21. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said that the Senate has worked tirelessly to craft legislation to replace Alabama’s old Sunshine Law after provisions of it were struck down in three court cases. The act passed out of the Senate in the 2014 legislative session but got tied up in the logjam in the House. Without passage of a new open meetings law there is a lot of uncertainty out there.
Sen. Ward said that Senator’s Reed and Hightower had raised the issue of the Walker and Mobile County Commissions. The law makes it a violation for the majority of a council, commission, or board to meet, even casually, unless it is a public meeting to prevent meetings from happening in secret without the public or the press present. The Mobile and Walker County Commissions only have three members. Sen. Ward said that most county commissions in the state have either five or seven commissioners. Ward’s native Shelby County has nine. Since Walker and Mobile Counties have just three members an exception to the law had to be added for them, because if two commissioner just happened to eat at the same restaurant that could be a violation of the law.
In the case of three member commissions, if the two people are together but not deciding how to vote on an issue, that is ok. If they are having a conversation on how they are going to vote on county business that is a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) said that is depends on what conversation they are having. “There is no way to enforce that.”
Sen. Ward acknowledged that proving they violated the act would be a challenge. “They wanted to be exempted from the Open Meetings Act. I didn’t want to exempt anybody from the Open Meetings law.:
Ward said that the act clamps down on serial meetings where two members meet to decide business and then two or more meet to decide business in order to get around the law.
Commissions, councils, boards, etc. can go into executive session to discuss negotiations with an individual entity you are in negotiations with over economic development or to discuss litigation or where the good name and character of an individual is involved……that’s where you are about to fire and employee.
Sen. Greg Albritton (R) asked if this affects work sessions.
Ward said that it does. They have to meet publicly. We are trying to get the law back to where we were before the court rulings gutted it.
Sen. Linda Coleman (D-Birmingham) asked if this applied to water boards and zoning commissions.
Sen. Ward said that yes it does.
The committee voted to give SB 21 a favorable report.