The public's right to know how its government operates took two major hits in recent weeks, with one blow delivered by the Alabama Supreme Court and the other by Millbrook city officials.
The Supreme Court refused by a one-vote margin to reconsider an earlier ruling that allowed the Montgomery County Board of Education to use a sneaky ruse to avoid complying with the state's Open Meetings Act.
And the city of Millbrook used a tried and true tactic of public officials who want to avoid embarrassment and responsibility for their actions -- they settled a lawsuit with a confidentiality clause to avoid having to tell the city's taxpayers how much the settlement will cost them.
First the Montgomery County Board of Education issue. Readers may well remember the original case, when the school board used a series of well-orchestrated secret meetings on who would be the next school superintendent to avoid having to hold public discussions on the issue.
That flies in the face of the intent of the Open Meetings Act, which states that it is "the policy of this state that the deliberative process of governmental bodies shall be open to the public." Note the phrase "deliberative process" -- that means not just the vote, but the discussions and debate that lead to that vote.
The board carefully arranged it so that there were never four members of the board at any one time in a meeting, so therefore there was never a quorum. Apparently all of the significant discussions were held behind closed doors, so the board managed to circumvent the clear intent of the state's open meetings law. All that remained after these meetings was for the board to meet openly and rubber stamp what was decided in secrecy.
Such a ruse -- called "serial meetings" -- have been outlawed in some states, but not in Alabama.
The serial meetings obviously were designed to circumvent the law. For instance, statements by school board member Charlotte Meadows to the news media were entered into evidence in the court case. She said, "It was clear the only reason to form these sub-groups was to avoid the media and the public." She also testified: "I think we met in those groups in those types of settings so we could specifically avoid the media, and I think that's wrong."
One of the candidates for the superintendent's post sued, claiming the meetings failed to meet the requirements of state law. The Supreme Court earlier disagreed, and then recently on a 5-4 vote refused to revisit the case.
[DOCUMENT: Slagle V. Ross (.pdf)]
The justices who refused to reconsider the case were Roy Moore, Lyn Stuart, Tom Parker and Glenn Murdock, and Judge R.B. Harwood, acting as a special justice.
Those Alabamians who believe in the public's right to know how its government operates should remember those votes come election time.
Justices Michael Bolin, Greg Shaw, James Main and Tommy Bryan dissented from the opinion to rehear the case. Justice Kelli Wise removed herself from the case.
The justices who allowed this end run around the Open Meetings Act essentially laid out a blueprint for how boards and commissions throughout Alabama can avoid meeting the intent of the state's open meetings law.
Unlike the relatively new "serial meetings" ruse, the tactic used by Millbrook city officials to hide the details of their embarrassing actions from the public has been around for years and used by many public officials throughout the state. But that makes it no less reprehensible.
Faced by a lawsuit from a female police officer alleging sexual harassment, the city settled the lawsuit, all the while claiming that the city admitted no wrongdoing and that no one involved would be reprimanded or terminated, according to a report by WSFA's Jennifer Oravet, who broke the story.
But the legal settlement contained a confidentiality agreement that city officials claim prevents them from revealing how much the settlement will cost the city.
Such confidentiality agreements are certainly convenient for public officials, since they prevent the taxpayers who ultimately pay the tab for such settlements from knowing exactly what their cost is or in some cases why they are having to pay that cost.
Both "serial meetings" and "confidentiality agreements" are ploys used by public officials to avoid responsibility for their actions. If the Alabama Legislature is serious about governmental transparency, these are loopholes in the state's open records laws that legislators should close.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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