Selma City Council: Remember to let the sun shine in

Published 6:17 pm Thursday, November 6, 2008

A probe into private discussions prior to vote by three Decatur councilmen as a possible violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act may prove instructive here in Selma as a new city council begins its first term.

The Decatur Daily has reported that three of the councilmen discussed who they would chose as president during conversations on the telephone and at an Alabama League of Municipalities meeting in Huntsville.

The council voted without discussion at Monday’s meeting to split the presidential term between two of the gentlemen the newspaper said had phone calls back and forth.

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A similar event occurred Monday at the organizational meeting of the Selma City Council and Cecil Williamson was voted in as the president pro-tem of the council. The Selma Times-Journal has confirmed that some discussion about who would be elected occurred via telephone and some of the discussion was held in a meeting at a local restaurant shortly after the election.

Dennis Bailey, the attorney for the Alabama Press Association, has said the state’s sunshine law prohibits council members from discussing the presidency on the telephone or at the League of Municipalities meeting.

Our council members had yet to take their oaths of office. Two of the council members from Decatur had been sworn in.

Before the Open Meetings Act, newly elected or appointed officials could hold secret meetings to discuss matters that would come up for a vote after they were sworn in because only old members of a body could count against a quorum.

But with the Open Meetings Act, all that changed. Newly elected or appointed voting members count toward the majority number required to constitute a meeting.

This is the lesson: All business should be conducted in the light of day. Pre-arranging votes or discussion before a public meeting about matters to be voted on is illegal. It’s also unethical.

One of the reasons change came to Selma was the lack of oversight, the inability of even council members to receive information about basic government function.

Our newly elected council members should obtain a copy of the Open Meetings Act, read it and keep it close. The best government on any level is the government that is open.