News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2005


'Sunshine Week' should be norm, not the exception

An open-meetings law that received final approval from the state Senate on Thursday and which takes effect Oct. 1 is a workable solution to a problem that has festered since this state came into being.

One would think improving on the existing sunshine law in this state would be tough. The law was as simple as they come:

"No executive or secret session shall be held by any of the

following named boards, commissions or courts of Alabama," followed by a comprehensive list of governmental bodies.

The one statutory exception: "secret sessions may be held by any of the above named boards or commissions when the character or good name of a woman or man is involved."

Court interpretations of that simple statute, however, have riddled it with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese in a cage of greedy mice. Over and over the state courts have said, "Yes it says that, but ..."

What we were left with was a statute that appeared to give citizens the ability to oversee the actions of their paid and elected leaders, but which permitted those officials to have whispered negotiations that reveal private agendas.

The Alabama Press Association, together with the state Attorney General, the governor and most associations of elected officials, backed the new statute. The law will incorporate some exceptions to open meetings that the courts had already nibbled open in the old law. It will also patch some of the myriad exceptions that our state's elected judiciary had managed to chew open.

We wish the amendment was unnecessary, that those governmental officials wearing black robes would enforce the laws they were sworn to uphold. But we live in an imperfect state. A law that the courts ignore is no law at all.

For all the defects our neighbors love to highlight, the people of Alabama are more true to their founders' democratic ideals than any state in the union. A democracy whose citizens are barred from their elected officials' meetings, however, is an impaired democracy.

Today is the first day of a week proclaimed "Sunshine Week" by Gov. Bob Riley. We hope that Oct. 1 will be a fresh start for the state. We hope that, in the future, every week will be sunshine week.

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