Robert Bentley signs open meetings provisions into law

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Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday held a ceremonial signing for a new open-government law intended to build upon the state’s Open Meetings Act by clarifying and strengthening key provisions based on the experience of the law in practice since it went into effect in 2005.

“Transparency promotes government accountability, and as elected officials, we are held to a higher standard for our decisions,” Bentley said in a statement. “It is important that our state’s open meetings law allows the public to see and be involved in government decisions. I supported this bill last year, and I am proud to see the Alabama Legislature pass this important piece of legislation this year.”

According to a staff analysis cited by the governor’s office, the new law amends the Open Meetings Act by altering the following three provisions:

(1) It expressly states that meetings in small groups without proper notice to discuss issues that will come before the full body is not permitted. There are times when government business requires closed-door meetings, and the current law provides for those situations.

(2)   Clarifies that Alabama citizens have a right to bring an action against a governmental body if they believe the body has violated the law, and any penalties assessed are payable to the plaintiff.

(3)   The legislation reflects that the Alabama Constitution requires the Alabama Legislature to meet with its doors open to the public unless a vote is taken in public that secrecy is required in certain circumstances.

The law comes amid concerns in neighboring Georgia and across the South stemming from widespread legislative membership in quasi-legislative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Florida — which prides itself on its good-government “Sunshine Law” — also recently had a kerfuffle involving a closed-door meeting and an enterprising reporter attempting to listen in through the door. House rules there require that meetings between more than two members of the Legislature must be open to the public if they are “agreeing to take formal legislative action on pending legislation or amendments.”

Bentley was joined in his optimism by the House and Senate co-sponsors of the new law, Sen. Cam Ward and Rep. Randy Davis.

Government should be open, transparent, accountable, and its business done before the people,” said Ward in a statement. “We have now strengthened the original intent of the Open Meetings law by forbidding members of a government board from holding secret meetings to collude on issues that should be discussed in the open. The people’s business should be done in the light of public oversight.”

“The Open Meetings Act ensures that meetings of our public officials are accessible and that everyday citizens can engage in the process,” Davis added. “I’m proud to have sponsored this important bill that is truly for the people of Alabama.”

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