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Dec 22nd
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Changes proposed to restore strength to Open Meetings Act in Alabama
Written by News Desk   
Friday, 24 January 2014 17:37

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Alabama State Senator Cam Ward of Alabaster and State Representative Mike Hill of Columbiana have plans to introduce legislation that they say will restore transparency and accountability to the Alabama Open Meetings Act (OMA).

"Transparency is crucial to maintaining the public's trust in our government institutions," Senator Ward said. "We must do everything we can to ensure that we have the highest level of open access in the operation of government."

Governor Robert Bentley announced his support for the proposed legislation recently saying, "Transparency promotes government accountability, and as elected officials, we are held accountable for our decisions by the people we serve. It is important that our state's open meetings law allows the public to see and be involved in government decisions. The goal of this new legislation is to further strengthen Alabama's Open Meetings Law."

The Alabama Supreme Court dealt several major blows to Alabama's OMA in a series of decisions. The court ruled in favor of the Montgomery Public School system in Slagle v. Board of Education allowing a public body to meet privately in small groups, known as serial meetings, in order to keep the deliberative process secret. In another case the Alabama Supreme Court limited the right of citizen's to challenge a government body in court except under particular circumstances. Finally, in a ruling last year related to the Alabama Accountability Act the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the Alabama Constitution does not require the state legislature to hold open meetings.

The new legislation which is also supported by the Alabama Press Association (APA) is an attempt to restore Alabama's OMA in light of these recent court rulings, Ward said. The legislation will propose three legislative amendments to the current 2005 Open Meetings Law.

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

(2) Clarifies that any Alabama citizen has a right to bring an action against a governmental body if it believes it 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.

"Meeting one on one to avoid discussing public business in public was never intended to be an acceptable practice under the Open Meetings Law, except where expressly permitted," Representative Hill said. "I was a co-sponsor of the rewrite of our Open Meetings Law in 2005, and as is the case with most comprehensive laws, some areas need to be better defined and clarified. That is my goal with this new legislation."

The Alabama OMA was revised and updated in 2005. Between 1901 – 2005 violating the OMA was a criminal offense. However Denis Bailey, legal counsel for the APA says it seems no one was ever prosecuted under it the old law. As part of the 2005 revision, violations under the OMA are now treated as civil, rather than criminal offenses. Bailey said the new legislation does not propose any changes to this area of the OMA, because civil cases require less restrictive burdens of proof than criminal cases.

Bailey explained that these new amendments essentially realign the law to the legislative intent in 2005.

"These simple amendments only clarify the original intent of the Alabama Legislature to have a strong and effective open meetings law that provides a window into the deliberative process of their government," Bailey said.

 
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