Open government at risk following ruling

Published 4:00am Wednesday, April 10, 2013

One of the most important roles of a local newspaper is that of a watchdog keeping an eye on local officials.
The state’s open meetings law makes it very clear when our local council members, commissioners and board members have to inform the public they’ll be meeting.
Very few private citizens have the time to attend the various meetings held across the city, state and county, so they depend on local media to keep them up to date on what happened.
Most decisions made at these level affect the spending of taxpayer money, or possible limitations or demands on regular folks.
But a recent decision by the Alabama Supreme Court puts that function at risk.
Ever been to a public meeting when a topic was mentioned briefly, then voted upon, with barely a sentence of discussion?
That’s usually a sign the members have already conferred on the issue beforehand, a violation of the spirit — if not the letter — of the open meetings law.
But a 5-4 decision last month gave constitutional blessing to the Montgomery Board of Education’s practice known as “serial meetings.”
The public notice requirements of the open meetings law is triggered by the meeting of a quorum, or more than half the body’s voting members. But the Montgomery school board, in a long-running personnel dispute, met with just two or three of the voting members at a time, all to discuss the same matter.
When the public gathered for the board meeting, the vote was taken with no disussion, because it was decided beforehand.
We’ve often seen similar instances with local governing bodies, but it’s a hard charge to prove.
We believe the public deserves an open debate of any topic that affects their wallet or their lives.
We hope state and local officials avoid the urge to take advantage of this new loophole and show trust in their constituents by debating all topics out in the open, for everyone to see.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, they say, and debates held in the dark too often lead to abuse of the public trust.
We also join other members of the media in hopes the Legislature will close this loophole and give citizens the access needed to stay involved in local affairs.

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