Here’s why Alabama’s Open Meetings Law is important to you

Byrne town hall
Rep. Byrne at town hall meeting in Frisco City. Jan 25, 2018. [Photo Credit: Rep. Bradley Byrne on Facebook]

“It was pretty egregious,” said Brandon Cox, publisher and editor at the paper as well as the author of the column that sparked the controversy.

Prior to his column, Cox said there were rumblings of access issues in the town of about 200 people because officials had closed a school with little notice by adding a last-minute agenda alteration. After that, he received word about rules barring admission to city meetings and what seemed like a overall refusal to grant public records requests.

A call to the city’s clerk and Paint Rock Mayor Brenda Fisk seemed like it wouldn’t lead to much on a Friday nearing deadline as Cox prepared to head out of town for the weekend. Then the phone rang.

“She said if you don’t live here, you don’t have any business here,” he said. “She stood by it and she was pretty aggressive about it.”

— Almost 300 people crowded into the City Hall auditorium, shouting down supporters of an unpopular insurance change. The mayor was booed from the podium at one point.

— At least five, possibly six, council members headed to a back room behind a locked door to iron out a compromise resolution

— Under Alabama law, a quorum is half of a body’s members. The City Council has nine members, though one seat is currently vacant.

— Experts and advocates said the council’s meeting last week raised eyebrows, especially since they came from behind closed doors and passed a resolution with little discussion.

— City officials said there was never five members in the room at one time, but state law also forbids the cycling of members in and out of the room to avoid a quorum.

— Advocates said the meeting likely violated the spirit of the law.

There isn’t any central database for recording open meeting act violations because they are brought as civil suits, but a cursory search shows several instances of alleged violations over the last few years.

Since the 2015 amendments to the Act, there have been at least 10 reported allegations of violations of the law, according to various news reports, with groups ranging from the Alabama Ethics Commission, the Gadsden City Board of Education and the Gulf Shores Schools Board of Education.

Last August, a 2016 increase in Alabama teachers’ health insurance premiums was reversed after a judge sided with the Alabama Education Association over open meetings violations, according to the Lagniappe Weekly.

Often times, those issue are not prosecuted though, especially when the issues over which an open meeting was closed proves to be non-controversial.

— An Alabama citizen, the attorney general, media company or the circuit’s district attorney can bring forward action in civil court. No member of the governmental body can bring suit against the others in that same group.

— For each violation of the meeting, each official can be fined $1,000 or half of their governmental monthly salary, whichever is less. The minimum penalty is $1.

— Monetary violations can also be levied in cases of improperly called executive sessions.

— The court can also invalidate the actions taken in the meeting that violates the act, provided that the complaint is filed within 21 days of the action being made public, similar to the judges reversal in the AEA insurance case.

— Multiple violations raised from the same instance are combined into one case.

— The governmental body can pay for the expenses of the present or former members that violate the law.

With advocates concerned about the violations, some are calling for increased penalties and enforcement of the law.

Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who led the charge in his chamber to strengthen the law in 2015, said he wants to revisit the act in the upcoming session.

“I think we could look at increasing the penalties,” he said. “You have to make it more of a deterrent or they aren’t going abide by it.”

When asked about several cases where bodies may have possibly violated the law accidentally, like a legal official hinted at in Montgomery, Ward was emphatic.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse. On that point, I don’t have a lot of sympathy.”

Advocates that talked with the Advertiser previously agreed with that assessment of open meetings laws, saying violations are violations, no matter the intent.

“Even if it was inadvertent, it doesn’t take away the fact that there was an attempt to engage in a public decision process without accountability,” said Noel Isama, a senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit open government advocacy group.

Cox said that in Texas, where he recently worked, there are stringent rules for open meetings and public records training to make sure that officials are well-versed in the laws.

“You actually had to take a course and pass a test. Here I don’t think there is any of that. These people want to do well, they just have no guidance,” he said. That ignorance extends itself to public records disclosure, another central piece to the issues in Paint Rock that feel to the wayside amid the explosion of scrutiny related to their closed meetings.

Ward said he wants to tighten up those laws as well, which have become increasingly clouded with technological advances. Officials can avoid disclosing their emails, for example, by using a personal account, he said. That intentional skirting of the law is a perfect parallel to the changes he made in 2015 that stopped officials from holding “serial meetings” that skirted the quorum rule on purpose without breaking the law.

It comes down to accountability in both meetings and records, Ward said, which helps expose misguided or wrong-doing by public officials.

“I think,” Ward said, “they go hand-in-hand because they are about transparency in your governments activities.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.