Archived Story

Court should reverse ‘Sunshine Law’ ruling

Published 4:56pm Monday, June 25, 2012

The Alabama Supreme Court made a decision last week that has the potential to harm every person who lives in Alabama by effectively gutting the state’s open meeting laws.

In a 5-4 decision, the state’s highest court ruled that the Montgomery County Board of Education did not violate the Alabama Open Meetings Act – commonly called the “Sunshine Law” – when small groups of board members were created to avoid public meetings and discuss issues that would later be coming before the entire board.

Doesn’t sound all that bad?

Well here’s how it could work.

A public board like the county commission, the city council or the school board, could get organize small group meetings to discuss, for instance, raising taxes, without notifying the public. All the details could be worked out in secret. Then at the full meeting, a motion could be made to vote on “Agenda Item 2,” and if it was approved, the tax-paying  public would find out about their new tax only after it became law.

I’m not saying that is how any of Tallapoosa County’s boards would act. Our law-makers generally do a good job and keep our citizens’ best interests at heart.

But in the course of running a city or a school system, there are always things that come up that politicians would rather not talk about in public.

That’s why the Sunshine Law is so important: It shines light on the dark issues that are hard to talk about but that affect all of us.

I don’t know about you, but I think that transparent government is good government.

And I appreciate politicians who tackle every problem head-on, no matter how ugly, in an open manner.

To do any less is the give in to temptation and fear, and that never solves a problem. It usually makes it worse.

One of the important roles of newspapers is to be the watchdogs of government.

Yes, we’ve had Watergate – and many other -gates – but despite the short-term scandal, what makes our form of government great is that it doesn’t have many skeletons in the closet. The world respects the American government in a way that it doesn’t respect many other governments – long list here – because most of the time, our government does what’s right and what’s legal and does so in a transparent way that is scrutinized by the press and the public.

The high court’s ruling last week seems to provide a loophole that some politicians will undoubtedly take.

In an Associated Press story, Dennis Bailey, a lawyer for the Alabama Press Association, said, “This is a road map for how to avoid deliberating tough issues in public … They’re going to use the small groups to hash out their differences and hold a public vote when they already know the outcome.”

This violates the basic tenets of the U.S. government that Lincoln described as “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Mark Montiel, a lawyer representing former Montgomery County interim school superintendent Clay Slagle in his suit against the Montgomery County Board of Education, said he will ask the Alabama Supreme Court to revisit its decision.

“On a 5-4 decision like this, obviously the chances of the court granting a rehearing are greater than with an 8-1 opinion,” he said.

I think the court should revisit this decision.

I think it should reverse it.

Alabama government needs sunshine.

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.