The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

April 14, 2013

Open Meetings Act should be protected

Associated Press

Montgomery Advertiser on fixing Open Meetings Act:

The Alabama Open Meetings Act, a critical safeguard of the public interest, took what could be a fatal blow when the state Supreme Court stood by an earlier decision and declined to reconsider its position in a 2010 case involving the Montgomery County Board of Education. There may yet be hope, however — if the Republican supermajorities in the Legislature, which talk ceaselessly of their commitment to transparency in government, will make a key addition to the law.

It is hardly comforting to imagine the future of the core principle of the Open Meetings Act resting in the hands of the Alabama Legislature, but in the absence of a deserved defense from the courts, that’s the reality.

The case involved Clay Slagle, a former interim superintendent of Montgomery Public Schools, and the practices of school board members who plainly disregarded the spirit of the law by holding private meetings. ...

Members of the Montgomery school board skirted the law through the use of serial meetings, a string of private meetings carefully including less than four — as four would be a quorum — of the seven board members each time so as to dodge the statute’s requirements and avoid public scrutiny. By the time the full board convened in open session, of course, all the real discussions had taken place and the votes that followed were mere formalities.

That was deplorable. Even more deplorable is that they got away with it. The vote was close — the Supreme Court split 5-4 — but nevertheless the serial meetings were deemed not to violate the Open Meetings Act. ...

Who can doubt that this is exactly what will become commonplace? And who will be the loser when it does? It won’t be just the rueful editorial writer or the frustrated reporter; it will be every citizen served — at least ostensibly served — by the governing body that chooses this end-run around the law to conduct the public’s business out of the view of the public.

Unless, that is, the transparency-touting Republicans who dominate both houses of the Legislature put their loudly claimed beliefs into action and amend the Open Meetings Act to prohibit serial meetings. With such a position of power — a solid supermajority in both houses — comes the capacity to turn talking points into legislation assured of passage. What say you, GOP?