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State scraps old open meetings law in favor of new one

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    News Media Update         ALABAMA         Freedom of Information         March 23, 2005    

State scraps old open meetings law in favor of new one

  • Two years after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled to limit access to government meetings, open government advocates win a new meetings law.

March 23, 2005 — Alabama Gov. Bob Riley in mid-March signed into law new guarantees that government meetings be open, repealing the state’s 90-year-old open meetings law and ending a two-year battle for reform sparked by a state Supreme Court decision. Both legislative houses unanimously approved the bill.

The original law dates to 1915 and was essentially “a vague statement of principles. It had no guidelines to follow in terms of going into executive sessions, it had no notice provision . . . it was just totally void of any specifics,” said Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association.

The vagueness of the old law — which remained virtually unchanged for 90 years — opened the door for narrow judicial interpretations, most notably the unanimous 2003 Alabama Supreme Court opinion in Auburn University v. The Advertiser Co., which said that government bodies’ committees and subcommittees were not open.

The new law extends the definition of “government body” to include “advisory committees or subcommittees of, or appointed by, the body.”

The law, which becomes effective Oct. 1 and is modeled after other state open meeting laws, also outlines notice requirements for public meetings. Notices shall include the time, date, and place of the meeting and generally must be posted seven days in advance. It guarantees anyone attending the right to record a meeting. Governmental bodies, which are obligated to keep records of their meetings, can have their actions invalidated by a court if they were taken during a meeting that violates the law.

Although the new law does not require executive sessions, it authorizes governmental bodies to meet secretly when discussing select public employees’ job performance, litigation, certain security-related issues, and plans to purchase or sell property.

Rep. Blaine Galliher (R-Etowah) and Sen. Zeb Little ( D-Cullman) sponsored the bill.

(S.B. 101)RL

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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