Our state’s Open Meetings Act was passed, according to the Alabama Press Association, “with the purpose of ensuring transparency behind the deliberative process of governmental bodies in Alabama.”

But what constitutes a governmental meeting that is subject to the rules guiding the Opens Meeting Act? For example, does a few city councilmen who happen to meet at a social gathering and “talk shop” earn the definition of a meeting within state law? Maybe. Maybe not.

A meeting is a quorum of members from a governmental body who deliberate on matters specific to the committee. Yet, that’s not always so cut-and-dried. The Open Meetings Act, for instance, has been modified to include “serial meetings,” in which there is no quorum, but members continue to deliberate on issues.

Generally, though, places and situations where members of a governmental body may meet, such as social gatherings, conventions, training programs or places with other officials from state or federal bodies to gather information do not count as “meetings” according to the law — as long as there is no deliberation during the gathering.

So, then, what constitutes “deliberations.” The law is specific — but with shades of gray. Any time members of a governmental body join to exchange information with the intent to influence or arrive at a decision — including current or future issues — they have entered into an official meeting.

That is, if a group of lawmakers are at a training program on public utilities, and the intent of that program is to influence town officials to purchase a new public water filtration system — and ultimately do so at a later “regular” meeting — is that training session then considered a “meeting.” The likely answer is, yes.

In fact, the term “deliberations” has already been tested by our courts. As the APA notes, “in Swindle v. Hocutt, the Alabama Supreme Court held that ‘deliberation’ has a broad scope and that ‘training programs’ where the focus was to achieve a specific outcome in a later regular meeting ultimately amounts to deliberation and violates the Open Meetings Act.”

The term “deliberations,” in this context, then, is fairly clear. But what about those “deliberations” where a quorum of members isn’t present — that is, where no action can officially take place? In our next editorial we will discuss such “serial meetings,” and what they mean, not only to the public, but to the flow of governmental action.

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