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Year of sunshine
Experts debate new open meeting law’s effectiveness

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — This year’s Sunshine Sunday, the start of a weeklong national initiative to encourage dialogue on the importance of open, accessible government, is the first since Alabama’s new open meetings law has been in effect for a full year.

The verdict? Among those on both sides of the issue, the law’s first full year on the books has exposed serious drawbacks to the public’s right to know, and caused grumbling from some public officials who are finding ways to circumvent the statute’s language.

The new open meetings law became effective in October 2005 after a number of failed attempts to rewrite the one from 1915. For the first time, it set out rules to give the public notice of meetings, and it provided a process for violators to be checked with civil penalties, including financial awards.

The new law defines a meeting as a prearranged gathering of a quorum — a majority of voting members — of a government body. Some groups are being accused of getting around the law by having several meetings attended by less than a majority each time.

“So far it seems like a mixed bag,” Bob Blalock, editorial page editor for The Birmingham News, said of the new law. “There are some things that the law does well. One is to quantify what a meeting is and what a body has to do as far as notice for the public.”

But he said shortfalls like having nine exceptions for executive sessions and not addressing “tag-team meetings” are big concerns.

“There are some improvements to the law, mainly with the issue of notice. I think that’s a big improvement and we should be thankful for that,” Blalock said. “But we want the strongest law possible to bring as much sunshine to public bodies and we didn’t quite get there with this law.”

Sonny Brasfield, assistant director of the state county commission association, said members are pleased with having more opportunities for private sessions and are taking advantage of it. But he said they don’t like the new requirements of introducing motions and taking recorded votes in order to have a closed meeting.

Brasfield said the biggest complaint he’s received from county officials is that reporters and others requesting information often aren’t clear on the specifics of the law.

“I don’t always think they have invested the same amount of time to become familiar with the statute as the local officials have,” he said.

Alabama Press Association attorney Dennis Bailey said it’s a good sign complaints aren’t coming from just one side and the law is working as well as can be expected.

“It hasn’t been a boon or a bane to either side on this issue,” he said. “I hear just as many newspaper people complaining about it as I do public officials, which may be an indication that it is a fair law and it’s working fairly well.”

Attorney General Troy King was among those who lobbied hard for rewriting the old statute, which had been weakened by court rulings and was never enforced in a criminal case. Bailey said it could take litigation to solve the serial mini-meetings problem, but the fact that no cases have been filed with the new law so far is “a good thing for everybody.”

Birmingham school board members were accused of violating the law when a few board members attended three separate meetings to discuss a plan for the city’s schools to reach financial solvency. Questions also were raised last summer when state school board members abruptly voted to fire two-year chancellor Roy Johnson after discussing the matter among themselves before the meeting. And Hoover City Schools superintendent Connie Williams was fired in a similar way last June.

Bailey said a judge’s ruling “that a succession of meetings close in time constitutes a quorum, even though a quorum was not present at any one moment,” would set a benchmark for future cases.

“The courts will need to wrestle with that. It’s going to come down to a review of intent. If the intent was to avoid the open meetings law, then how do you prove it to them? It will come down to the facts of the case,” he said.

Sunshine Sunday

Sunshine Sunday in Alabama:

What is it?

A Sunday that news organizations designate to focus on the importance of open meetings and accessible records of public agencies and government officials. Daily and weekly newspapers write editorials and stories about “sunshine” laws and cases where the public has been denied access to government decision-making. Broadcast stations offer similar spots on the issue.

How did it start?

In Alabama, an organization called the Alabama Center for Open Government joined with the Alabama Press Association, the Alabama AP Managing Editors and Alabama broadcasters to launch Sunshine Sunday in 2004. Nationally, it originated in Florida in response to the closing of public records and increased government secrecy in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.

What’s next?

Sunshine Sunday has expanded into Sunshine Week, March 11-17 this year, a weeklong campaign for government openness. It was spearheaded nationally by The Associated Press and more than 50 news outlets, journalism groups, universities and the American Library Association.

On the Net

For more information on sunshine law initiatives, visit www.alacog.com or www.sunshineweek.org.

The Associated Press

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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