Letting the sunshine in

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2005

The selma Times-Journal

Alabama’s new Open Meetings Act (OMA), which takes effect on October 1, will require Selma, and the rest of the state to change the way it conducts business.

By law, the city will be required to post at least an hour’s notice before conducting meetings, provide more specific reasons for going into executive sessions and vote on all matters openly.

“A new day has dawned in Alabama, and the light is shining brighter than ever before on our state government,” said Attorney General Tory King in a press release.

Noting his office’s long history of support for the people’s right to attend meetings of their governmental bodies, he called the new Act “a huge step in bringing about the kind of transparency and openness in government that leads to public confidence in its operation.”

Among the significant changes – which are explained in detail in a manual for government officials released by the Alabama Press Association and the Attorney General’s office – are the following:

The OMA defines committees and subcommittees and requires them to follow the same rules of open government. It defines a quorum –

the minimum amount of representatives required for a government body to conduct meetings. It also narrows the “Good Name and Character” sections of the Sunshine law – placing clear definitions on what municipalities can and cannot go into executive session over.

It also opens the doors on meetings discussing job performance, previously closed under the “good name and character” clause.

The OMA requires that all votes conducted by government bodies to be done openly, thereby outlawing secret ballots.

It also requires proper notice to be given for all meetings: At least seven days for a regular meeting, one day for a called meeting and one hour for an emergency meeting.

The OMA also prevents government bodies from circumventing Sunshine Laws by holding conference calls or using any other form of “electronic” meeting. All conference calls are treated exactly like any other meeting with the same requirements.

Even with the changes, the new law still allows executive sessions, although executive sessions are never required by law.

“It’s really going to open some doors,” said City Attorney Jimmy Nunn. “I know that some people look at (executive sessions) as being a negative, but this (OMA) is going to allow the city to be able to discuss issues and make determinations so that it can be discussed in public.”

Nunn gave an example of a situation where publicly discussing an issue could be detrimental to the city.

He said that in a case where the city wants to buy property, discussing it openly could unfairly tilt the market advantage toward the seller, causing the city to pay more money than necessary.

By discussing it in executive session, Nunn said, the city is able to prevent being taken advantage of.

He said the city can also discuss pending lawsuits under OMA.

“This will help the city discuss issues concerning settlements, claims, lawsuits prior to the actual lawsuit being filed and becoming public knowledge,” Nunn said. “It allows us to protect the city from liability.”

Nunn said that ultimately, executive sessions are about putting the best interest of the public first, but said that if they’re overused, the public could suffer.

“You want to avoid abusing that,” he said.

According to the Attorney General’s office, avoid abuse is exactly what the OMA is all about.

“I believe all questions involving the right to attend meetings of governmental entities should be decided in favor of public access, with very narrow exceptions,” King stated in a press release. “Because our law now contains greater clarity and requires unprecedented openness, I believe our public officials will comply with these requirements.”

He said he is delighted that the new law “will give the owners of our government — the people of Alabama — the ability to see and understand the actions taken by our elected officials and the ability to hold them accountable for their actions.

“Ours is a participatory democracy and those of us privileged to serve in it have the responsibility of giving our people the tools to move from being spectators to being participants,” King said. “This law does that more effectively than any other measure. It is the ultimate accountability measure. Until we have open government, we can never have accountable government. With the Alabama Open Meetings Act of 2005, we have taken great strides towards having both.”