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City and county officials ready for Sunshine Law

By By MARY-ALLISON LANCASTER – Managing editor
Public officials in Escambia County and their attorneys have participated in training sessions to prepare for the implementation this Saturday of the Alabama Open Meeting Act of 2005.
The bill, approved by the Alabama Legislature last spring and championed by both the attorney general and the Alabama Press Association, requires more public notice of meetings and stipulates when a government body may meet in closed session.
According to Alabama Attorney General Troy King, the new act was passed to allow regular citizens to know what their government is doing.
A two-hour training session was held last week in Mobile where King, Assistant Attorney General Corey Maze and Dennis Bailey of the Alabama Press Association briefed attendees on the new law going into effect in Oct. 1.
Several similar meetings have been held in various cities throughout the state where lawyers, public officials and the media have been asked to attend.
Brewton Mayor Ted Jennings said that in order to better prepare for the new act, letters were sent out to each member of every city community/board, advising them of the new Act.
In East Brewton, Mayor Terry Clark began notifying the public last week of committee and sub-committee workshops and other meetings that were held this week. He said that the city of East Brewton has been having administrative workshops and the public will be notified of every meeting.
If a meeting is scheduled beyond Oct. 1, the "government body" must still follow the new notice requirements for that future meeting beginning Oct. 1. A meeting is defined as a gathering of a quorum of members of a government body, including all committees, sub-committees and boards of government bodies.
A meeting does not include social gatherings, training sessions or any other unofficial event.
Three types of notice requirements are clearly defined in the new act - seven days for regular meetings, one day for special meetings and one hour for emergency meetings.
For municipal government bodies and local school boards, public notice is required as soon as possible, and notice must be posted on a bulletin board at a place convenient to the public, such as in the city hall or the administrative office.
Currently, the Escambia County Commission sends its agenda via facsimile and the Brewton City Council agenda can be viewed on a bulletin board at City Hall.
According to Maze, if notice has been on a bulleting board and then it's decided it will be put in a newspaper and no longer placed on a bulletin board, the body must vote on the new change before it's implemented.
The public and media may request direct notification "if practicable." However, the government body can set rules and regulations necessary, including costs, methods and contents.
Under direct notification, if there is a cost for direct notification, the "body" can require advance payment from the requesting party. Direct notification can be sent using e-mail, telephone, facsimile and U.S. Mail.
During an Escambia County Commission meeting held on Monday morning, a policy for recording was approved, as well as a guideline of rules and procedures.
The only exception to an open meeting is an "Executive Session."
Officials must state why they are going into Executive Session and votes must be recorded. Before breaking to go into Executive Session, a statement must be made to the public regarding how long officials will convene and when officials might come back to the open meeting.
There are nine formal times officials can call an Executive Session: