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Senate passes Open Meetings Act to its original intent; bill heads to House

The Alabama Senate has passed SB21, the bill that restores the Open Meetings Act to its original intent.  In a rare Wednesday session, members passed Sen. Cam Ward’s bill by a vote of 30 – 0. While there were several amendments added yesterday, the essential measures of the bill remained intact.

“Our Senate is sending a strong message to Alabamians about their commitment to openness and transparency by passing this bill during Sunshine Week,” APA Executive Director Felicia Mason said. “We applaud all Senators who supported this effort, and especially Sen. Ward who has been a staunch sponsor over the past two sessions.” Ward, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was sponsor of the bill last year that failed to pass on the last day of the session.

Mason applauded the Senate leadership for moving the bill forward during the first weeks of the Regular Session. “We also appreciate Sen. Marsh of Anniston who is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate for recognizing the importance of this legislation and moving it early in the session,” Mason said.

The legislation became necessary after three Alabama Supreme Court rulings over the past two years severely crippled the existing law. Most damaging was the decision that essentially allowed for secret meetings as long as a quorum was not present. In some cases, the public is only witness to a vote because all of the deliberation is done in small, serial meetings prior to a public meeting.

Alabama’s first Open Meetings Law was one of the oldest in the country, passed in 1915. Most states did not pass legislation related to open meetings until after the scandal of Watergate in the 1970s. The law, however, was mostly a statement of principle and lacked specifics to guide government officials and the public in conducting business in the open.

The current law was passed in 2005, and was a collaborative effort between many groups to create a guideline for public meetings. Gov. Riley signed that bill during Sunshine Week in 2005.

SB21 now goes to the House for committee consideration. The House version, HB195, is sponsored Rep. Randy Davis of Daphne. Davis is chairman of the Constitution, Campaign and Election Committee. “Rep. Davis has always supported open government issues, and we appreciate his dedication to passing this bill in the House,” Mason said.

The Legislature will take next week off for Spring Break. Mason said she hopes the House will begin work on the bill as soon as they return on March 31.