Local elected officials respond to Open Meetings Act bill

By KATIE MCDOWELL/General Manager

A bill looking to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act has support from many elected municipal and county groups in Shelby County, although some officials expressed concern about how the language of the bill will be interpreted if it passes.

Other groups have not taken a position on Senate Bill 191, which was sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The bill is being considered by the Senate after passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 12. Ward previously said the current Open Meetings Act was “effectively gutted” in recent years by a trio of Alabama Supreme Court cases.

SB 191 proposes three amendments to the current law:

1. It would forbid “serial meetings,” in which members of government entities meet in small groups without proper public notice in an effort to avoid establishing a quorum.

2. It would provide a basis for Alabama citizens to sue a government body for violations to the Open Meetings Act, something Ward previously said is “almost impossible.”

3. The new act also would forbid the Alabama Legislature from holding closed meetings without holding a public vote declaring secrecy is required for the situation at hand.

An amendment to the bill clarified the “serial meeting” provision of the bill. The provision does not forbid one-on-one meetings, phone calls or emails between board members. Ward said elected officials had to be “intentionally seeking to circumvent the Open Meetings Act” to be in violation of the act.

The corresponding state House of Representatives bill, House Bill 244, was sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, and currently is pending action by the House Committee on Ethics and Finance.

Helena City Council member Hal Woodman praised the proposed changes to the Open Meetings Act, and said he is a proponent of city councils recording their meetings and posting them online.

“It’s a great idea,” Woodman said of the proposed changes, although he said parts of the proposed law may be difficult to enforce. “It’s better to have it in place, even if it’s difficult to enforce.”

Alabaster City Council President Scott Brakefield said the council regularly discusses issues in committee meetings with less than a quorum present before bringing the issues to the whole council for discussion.

However, Brakefield said the City Council gives advance public notice for all committee meetings, and said all committee meetings are open to the public.

“We are under quorum in those (committee) meetings, but we’ve always publicized them anyway,” Brakefield said. “We have always posted those meetings, so I’m not sure if the changes will affect us.”

Rick Rhoades, the president of the newly formed Pelham Board of Education, said he supports the changes, as long as they don’t impact board members’ ability to converse one-on-one.

“Sometimes, you do need to have those one-on-one discussions. I think that’s a very important part of the democratic process,” Rhoades said. “Whatever the Legislature decides, we will follow that. Nobody is trying to hide anything.”

David Bradshaw, a Calera City Council member, said he does not believe the proposed bill would “hinder” the council at all if it passes.

“I believe that all the citizens of Calera have a right to know what issues are being considered by their government officials and if this bill helps in this regard, I am for it,” he said.

Several elected officials said their government body has not taken a position on the bill, including Aubrey Miller, president of the Shelby County Board of Education. However, Miller also said the board does “everything within our power to go well beyond the requirements of the law in the conduct of our business.”

The Hoover City Council also has not discussed or taken a position on the bill, Council President Jack Wright said. However, he said the council has always and will continue to follow the Open Meetings Act “in both letter and spirit.”

Lindsay Allison, Shelby County Commission chair, said the commission always gives appropriate notice to citizens of the time and place of meetings.

“It’s not really something we’ve paid a lot of attention to as local government because it’s not an issue for us,” she said of SB 191. “If the legislation changes, we’re going to go with the rules.”

Rick Hayes, Pelham City Council president, voiced concern about how some of the bill’s provisions will be interpreted.

“We appreciate our legislators’ efforts and have been reviewing the proposed bill to amend the Open Meetings Act with our city attorney,” he said. “Although the recent updates to this bill have clarified some key issues, we are still not sure how other some of the language would be interpreted. We are hopeful that these items can be clarified so that they are not still open for interpretation.

“You definitely don’t want to be uncertain about how these kinds of rules will be applied,” he added.

Juanita Champion, Chelsea City Council Pro Tem, also expressed concerns about some of the language of the bill, specifically an amendment which said citizens have the right to sue a government body for violations to the Open Meetings Act.

“I do not like amendment 2 because of the word ‘sue,’” she said. “This implies that a court must get involved in order to report an alleged offense. I think this is an ethics issue not a judicial one.”

However, Champion said the Chelsea City Council “aggressively seeks to obey” the Open Meetings Act.

“I personally think it is a good act because it ensures the public a right to be informed and since elected officials are representing the public, it serves to make us accountable to our constituents,” she said.

 Neal Wagner, Cassandra Mickens and Ginny Cooper contributed reporting to this story.