- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A bill passed by the Alabama Senate on Thursday would restore the public’s ability to sue because of closed meetings, the sponsor said.

The Senate voted 26-1 for the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster and backed by the Alabama Press Association and Gov. Robert Bentley. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Ward said three recent decisions by the Alabama Supreme Court gutted Alabama’s open meetings law and this legislation restores many of its provisions.

One court ruling made suing because of a secret meeting difficult, but Ward’s bill says civil actions can be brought by any Alabama resident. The bill provides for penalties ranging from $1 to $1,000 for violating open meeting requirements.

In response to another court ruling, the bill makes clear that the open meetings requirements apply to committees and subcommittees created by government boards.

Ward’s bill also prohibits two or more serial meetings in which less than a quorum of a board gets together privately to deliberate an issue the board will vote on within seven days.

It does not prohibit members of a board from exchanging background and educational information before a vote, but they can’t deliberate. It also does not change the way the Legislature conducts its business, and it does not apply to trustees of the University of Alabama and Auburn University when they have gatherings to fill top academic and coaching positions.

The bill is a compromise worked out with associations representing county commissions, city councils, and school and college officials.

Ward said he’s optimistic the bill will become law because the public needs transparency in government.

“It is absolutely necessary for confidence in government,” he said.

Felecia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, thanked the Senate leadership for making the bill a priority.

“It restores key provisions of our open meetings law that are important to Alabama citizens,” she said.