Bill targets secrecy in government

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 10, 2004

A new proposed bill in the state Legislature aims to prevent public officials from meeting behind closed doors or without notifying the press and public.

The bill, written by Rep. Blaine Galliher (R-Gadsden), is co-sponsored by Rep. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and Rep. Mike Hill (R-Columbiana).

Legislators held a press conference about the bill with representatives from the Alabama Press Association last week in Montgomery.

One of the significant provisions of the bill affects committees, which are not subject to public scrutiny under the state’s current open meetings law.

According to Ward, Alabama is one of only two states in the nation that do not require committee meetings to be subject to open meetings laws.

South Dakota also does not.

Ward said the proposed bill would eliminate some of the gray area in the state’s open meetings law, called the Sunshine Law.

&uot;It closes a lot of the loopholes and makes it clear for public and elected officials,&uot; Ward said.

The current open meeting law contains significant vague terms, according to Ward.

&uot;If we don’t start defining these a bit better, we’re going to get to a point where the Sunshine Law is meaningless,&uot; he said.

In recent years, court cases involving the Auburn University Board of Trustees and the Selma Water Works and Sewer Board have highlighted some of the loopholes in the state’s open meetings law, according to the Alabama Press Association.

The proposed bill, called the Open Meetings Act, defines what constitutes a meeting as well as what is sufficient prior notice for a meeting.

It also defines what bodies are subject to open meetings law.

The proposed bill outlines when closed sessions are permitted and who can attend such closed meetings.

The bill appears today before the Judiciary Committee and Rules Committee for approval.

Ward said he expects the bill to come up for a formal vote during committee sessions next week