Government often shuns public with secret sessions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 16, 2004

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Do you want government raising your taxes without first asking your opinion?

The DeKalb County Commission tried it in 1996, abruptly passing a 1-cent sales tax without giving the public any notice. The result was predictable.

“There was an immediate outcry,” says Ben Shurett, publisher of the Times-Journal at Fort Payne. “Citizen groups were formed and the Times-Journal was flooded with letters to the editor.” Within weeks, the commission was publicly denounced by “almost every leader and significant group in the county.”

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The tax was shortly rescinded. The commissioners who ran for re-election were defeated.

The lessons from DeKalb County are being raised again as a proposed new Sunshine Law seeks to strengthen the public’s right to open government. The proposal comes on the heels of Alabama Supreme Court rulings that dealt blows to the current open meetings law, allowing some committees to meet in secret and full boards, during open sessions, to cast secret ballots.

The two rulings put Alabama in a unique position. “No other state in the country” allows such avenues of secrecy in government, said Dennis Bailey, attorney for the Alabama Press Association.

With a proposed new law introduced in the Legislature, news organizations in Alabama are holding “Sunshine Sunday” on March 14 to put a spotlight on the issue. The project includes articles and editorials supporting the public’s right to know what is taking place in county and state offices, city halls and local school boards.

Organized by the Alabama Center for Open Government, it is the first “Sunshine Sunday” in the state and is modeled partly on a similar project in Florida, which has one of the nation’s strongest laws protecting public access to government meetings and records.

“We want to keep the subject in the public agenda,” said Ed Mullins, center founder and journalism department chairman at the University of Alabama. “It’s not a sexy subject. But it’s important.”

It became more important following the Supreme Court rulings — one involving Auburn University trustee committees that met in private, the other a state permit vote cast by secret ballot to break a tie in a Shelby Medical Center case.

Before those rulings, “there were a lot of differences of opinion on whether the law needed to be changed,” said Bailey. Afterward, the movement to seek a stronger Sunshine Law was forged.

The current law was enacted in 1915 at the behest of Sen. Miller Bonner of Wilcox County. As Bonner later recounted, he sought the law “to take the hood off the Klan” — to get the government out in the open during a period when the secretive Ku Klux Klan was a rising force.

The law for many years has been viewed as a moderately strong one that was short on penalties and enforcement. Violations are a misdemeanor carrying a maximum $500 fine.

“There has not been a criminal prosecution for a violation of the current law in 89 years,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Richard Allen.

The proposed new law, developed by the APA with the support of the attorney general’s office, would provide a civil penalty of up to $1,000, plus assessing attorney’s fees to be paid by the individual violator, not taxpayers.

Bailey said the ruling in the Auburn trustee case requires that a meeting be open to the public only if a quorum of the full board is present. While Auburn officials have said trustee committees will be public, Bailey said, the court’s interpretation would allow committees that are less than a quorum of the full body to meet in secret.

The proposed law would require public meetings when a quorum of a committee is present — making it harder for subgroups to shut out the public.

A spokesman for county commissions said abuses of the open meetings law are “isolated and generally because of misunderstandings” — often by a news reporter who targets commissioners chatting together in a social rather than business context.

Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the group opposes a new law, favoring amending the current law instead. He said new commissioners now receive 50 hours of training, including compliance with the open meetings law, and they prefer not “to litigate a new law.”

“Most of the work on the bill was by the Attorney General’s office and the Alabama Press Association, not the folks trying to comply with the law,” he said.

In recently announcing a bipartisan effort to pass a stronger law, state Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, pointed to the need for more clarity to help public officials know when meetings can be closed and when they can’t.

At a House committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, Galliher said work on the bill would continue in order to address some of the concerns raised.

Keeping the public out of earshot when talking about the public’s business is not uncommon.

Some snapshots:

In Mobile County, where in 2001 voters approved the first property and sales tax increase for public schools since World War II, the school board shut the door on the public last year to discuss problems with a multimillion-dollar school construction program with taxpayer money.

Six of seven Bessemer school board members met privately with an attorney at a Hoover hotel last year but claimed it wasn’t an unannounced meeting — even though the lawyer billed them for one.

The Talladega water board, which has fought court rulings that it is a public body subject to open records law, resisted letting citizens know about contaminated wells after learning of the pollution in 1995.

Spanish Fort’s City Council, which was annexing property last year for a shopping mall, called special meetings with such little notice that, when a Mobile Register reporter got wind of one, Mayor Greg Kuhlmann asked, “How did you find out about this meeting?” He later said he meant the comment to be an innocent remark but acknowledged it “didn’t sound really good, did it?”

At Fort Payne, Shurett said the 1-cent sales tax was to support a worthy goal — public schools — but the commissioners’ secrecy triggered their downfall.

“Public officials still need to learn to trust the public as much as the public needs to learn to trust government officials,” he said.

“The more people know about the reasons public decisions are made, the more supportive they will be of the ultimate outcome. If public officials would truly be open, trust between these two groups would grow, not diminish.”

On the Net:

Alabama Center for Open Government at

Alabama Press Association at