By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
For years Alabama had a reasonably effective Sunshine Law. Then a series of court rulings effectively gutted that law. On Tuesday, June 2 the Alabama House of Representatives passed the Open Meetings Act which restored much of that lost openness and transparency. Senate Bill 21 was sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R from Alabaster).
Sen. Ward said in a statement on Facebook, “Thank you to the members of the legislature who gave final passage to the Open Meetings Act which I have sponsored for the last two years. A big victory for transparency at all levels of govt in AL!”
The bill was carried in the Alabama House of Representatives by Representative Randy Davis (R from Daphne).
The Open Meetings Law would ban quorums of city councils, zoning boards, county commissions, and other governmental entities from meeting in private without the participation of the public or the press. The law also deals with serial meetings where two council/commission member meet and then another two meet etc. to avoid complying with the terms and intent of the Open Meetings Law.
The bill will still allow boards to go into executive session when discussing: legal matters, economic development, and the good name and character of a person (like when the board is about to fire an employee).
A special exception was made for three member county commissions in Mobile, Winston, and Covington Counties. Two members of those commissions CAN legally meet even though that constitutes a quorum but they must not have the intent to conduct business and get around the Open Meetings Law. A special bill, SB321 sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower (R from Mobile) was passed on Tuesday to address the three member county commission exception. It was carried in the House by Rep. James Buskey (D from Mobile).
Rep. Howard Sanderford (R from Huntsville) bitterly objected to SB21 provision that the press be notified of meetings. Sanderford said, “Who holds the media accountable?” Should the media be held accountable for what they write and the mistakes that they make?” Sanderford said that efforts by the Alabama Press Association has gotten bills sponsored by Sanderford killed on three separate occasions. Sanderford lamented that there is little or no accountability of the media.” “They have not shown that they do a good job.” “And you never hear about it when they make mistakes.” “Why should we give the media what they want when they aren’t accountable to anybody!”
Representative Davis agreed that the paper had lost a lot of relevance after it went to just three days a week.
Rep. Artis A.J. McCampbell (D from Livingston) wanted to make sure that all the colleges had to comply with this law and that it affected the University of Alabama and Auburn University like it did the University of West Alabama.
Rep. Davis said that it did.
SB21 passed the House 91 to 4. It has already passed in the Senate.
The bill does not apply to the state legislature. The ‘Alabama Political Reporter’ has strenuously objected to routine caucus meetings where often a super majority of legislators debate issues, hear expert witnesses, and make decisions on legislation well outside the eyes of both the people of Alabama as well as the Alabama press.