This year?s Sunshine Sunday, the start of a weeklong national initiative to encourage dialogue on the importance of open, accessible government, is the first since Alabama?s new open meetings law has been in effect for a full year.
The verdict? Those on both sides of the issue say the law?s first full year on the books has exposed serious drawbacks to the public?s right to know and caused grumbling from some public officials who are finding ways to circumvent the statute?s language.
The new open meetings law became effective in October 2005 after a number of failed attempts to rewrite the one from 1915. For the first time, it set out rules to give the public notice of meetings, and it provided a process for violators to be checked with civil penalties, including financial awards.
The new law defines a meeting as a prearranged gathering of a quorum — a majority of voting members — of a government body. Some groups are being accused of getting around the law by having several meetings attended by less than a majority each time.
?So far it seems like a mixed bag,” Bob Blalock, editorial page editor for The Birmingham News, said of the new law. ?There are some things that the law does well. One is to quantify what a meeting is and what a body has to do as far as notice for the public.”
But he said shortfalls like having nine exceptions for executive sessions and not addressing ?tag-team meetings” are big concerns.
?There are some improvements to the law, mainly with the issue of notice. I think that?s a big improvement and we should be thankful for that,” Blalock said. ?But we want the strongest law possible to bring as much sunshine to public bodies and we didn?t quite get there with this law.”
Sonny Brasfield, assistant director of the state county commission association, said members are pleased with having more opportunities for private sessions and are taking advantage of it. But he said they don?t like the new requirements of introducing motions and taking recorded votes in order to have a closed meeting.
Brasfield said the biggest complaint he?s received from county officials is that reporters and others requesting information often aren?t clear on the specifics of the law.
?I don?t always think they have invested the same amount of time to become familiar with the statute as the local officials have,” he said.
Alabama Press Association attorney Dennis Bailey said it?s a good sign complaints aren?t coming from just one side and the law is working as well as can be expected.
?It hasn?t been a boon or a bane to either side on this issue,” he said. ?I hear just as many newspaper people complaining about it as I do public officials, which may be an indication that it is a fair law and it?s working fairly well.”
Attorney General Troy King was among those who lobbied hard for rewriting the old statute, which had been weakened by court rulings and was never enforced in a criminal case. Bailey said it could take litigation to solve the serial mini-meetings problem, but the fact that no cases have been filed with the new law so far is ?a good thing for everybody.”
Birmingham school board members were accused of violating the law when a few board members attended three separate meetings to discuss a plan for the city?s schools to reach financial solvency. Questions also were raised last summer when state school board members abruptly voted to fire two-year chancellor Roy Johnson after discussing the matter among themselves before the meeting. And Hoover City Schools superintendent Connie Williams was fired in a similar way last June.
Bailey said a judge?s ruling ?that a succession of meetings close in time constitutes a quorum, even though a quorum was not present at any one moment,” would set a benchmark for future cases.
?The courts will need to wrestle with that. It?s going to come down to a review of intent. If the intent was to avoid the open meetings law, then how do you prove it to them? It will come down to the facts of the case,” he said.
Brasfield said the serial meetings aren?t that big of a problem.
?I think those discussions are like Shakespeare,” he said. ?I would say they?re much ado about nothing. To try and pass an open meetings statute that prohibits public officials from being humans is silly.”
Auburn journalism professor Dale Harrison, who has been a leader of the Alabama Center for Open Government, said such stances make him doubtful very much will change with the new law. He said newspapers should be more active in writing editorials when violations occur across the state, not just in their coverage areas.
?I hate to be pessimistic, but the bottom line is I don?t think that the law has changed the culture and it?s the culture that?s the problem,” he said. ?When public officials want to operate in a culture of secrecy, then the law can?t change that.”
He said Alabama courts are going to have to start ?getting tough on public officials,” interpreting the law strictly and holding offenders accountable for violations.
Birmingham attorney Gilbert Johnston agreed and said an interesting downside of going from a vague law to one that is very specific is that officials are able to get away with more if it?s clearly not addressed, such as the serial meetings issue.
?In some respects the fuzzier old law made some people take pause before doing some things, so it?s a tradeoff,” said Johnston, who represents news organizations and is a member of the executive committee of the Alabama Center for Open Government.
?I?m not sure if we know for sure yet if we?re better or worse off. It?s hard when you want to try to legislate every conceivable situation because the human mind is a very nimble machine,” he said.
Some worry that more serial meetings will be held out of the public eye if the issue isn?t addressed soon, but most agree that changing the law through legislation isn?t the answe