Shane Black

When Athens resident Shane Black isn't serving as an attorney, he is sometimes sharing the city's ghost stories.

It takes 27 big, thick books to contain all of Alabama's laws.

The volumes cover nearly everything — agriculture, animals, aviation, crimes, courts, civil and commercial matters, education, elections, eminent domain highways, health, public utilities, revenue, taxes and more.

It takes three full books alone just to cover all the city laws. So, the attorneys out there who specialize in municipal law are typically indispensable to the cities they serve. Some of them know their stuff so well, they are asked to help cities statewide.

Shane Black, who serves as the attorney for the city of Athens and Athens City Board of Education, is among them. The Alabama League of Municipalities recently praised Black and Ben Goldman, attorneys for Hand Arendall in Athens and Birmingham respectively, for their assistance amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. They recently gave the League updated guidance on the open meetings act and how to proceed with public meetings.

Lorelei Lein, general counsel with the League, has been with the association for 18 years. Lein also praised Black and Goldman for their assistance.

"They both have some expertise (in areas of the law), so I rely on them pretty heavily," Lein said. "We refer to Shane as 'Professor Black' because he is very thorough and a very good resource."

She said municipal laws cover multiple things and can be very unique.

"He has just always been thoughtful and provided solid advice," Lein said of Black. He even made himself available this past Sunday when she needed to discuss a current legal matter affecting cities, she said.

Over the past three weeks, Lein has been working with the state attorney general and the governor's legal staff on legal matters, including new sheltering in place laws and making sure the rules were acceptable, said Greg Cochran, deputy director of the League. He described Lein as both humble and instrumental in this work.

"She deserves a lot of credit on how municipalities perform on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Lein said that while she and other League lawyers have advised cities following disasters like the 2011 tornadoes that struck Tuscaloosa and other cities, she has never seen anything on the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak.

What they do

Together, Lein, Black and Goldman have worked to advise cities on existing open meeting laws and how state proclamations and public health orders put into effect amid the outbreak might affect them. The advice went into the recent memos sent to all cities related to COVID-19 and the state open meetings act.

After legal consultation, the governor on March 18 gave cities the option of meeting or voting on matters via telephone or videoconference as long as they limit their deliberations to matters "necessary to respond to COVID-19" or matters "necessary to perform essential minimum functions of the government body."

A city that qualifies for the telephone or videoconference exception must post a summary of the meeting on their websites or another prominent location no less that 12 hours after the meeting. They also must give proper public notice.

In case of other city business, the open meetings law applies, but so does the limit on the number of people at a gathering and the 6-foot spacing.

Athen and many cities have responded by live-streaming city meetings and offering a public call-in number so city officials can hold public hearings and receive general comments from the citizens.

Who the League helps

While large cities like Montgomery, Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville have their own legal departments, many small cities do not have such a legal rudder to guide them on the state's law. Amid the current state of emergency, when business closures and social distancing were mandated, cities had questions aplenty. But the League is used to handling questions in regular times.

"We get hundreds of phone calls a week from members seeking guidance and assistance" to how to navigate day to day," Cochran said.

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