- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama House on Tuesday passed legislation to tighten the state law requiring city councils, county commissions and other governing bodies to meet in public.

The bill, which passed 91-4, would prohibit boards and committees from holding a series of meetings of a few members behind closed doors.

The legislation aims to remove a loophole in legislation approved in 2005 that allows a sub-quorum of two or more members of a board to hold secret meetings.

In an interview after the vote, Senate bill sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the bill is needed to replace open meeting protections stripped by several recent Alabama Supreme Court rulings.

“I think it reverses what I consider some bad decisions by the Supreme Court, and I’m glad to see that this is a step forward in transparency of state government and local government,” Ward said. “Every board and commission, every body of government that’s answerable with taxpayer dollars should be required to provide more transparency.”

House bill sponsor Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, said it’s a disservice to the public to allow public boards to meet in secret.

“Remember, this bill is for the people,” he said.

The bill allows exceptions for meetings related to discussing economic incentives for companies. It also exempts certain sensitive personnel decisions such as the hiring of new coaches and presidents.

Ward said elected officials, once in office, should understand the obligation they have to transparency at every level of government.

Ward said he expects the Senate, which passed the legislation in March, will approve House revisions.

“I think there are a lot of folks on the local level who are just average citizens wanting to know what their government’s doing that don’t know what their rights are and what the obligations are of elected officials or appointed officials to provide adequate transparency,” he said.

According to the bill, universities created by the Constitution of Alabama of 1901 would be exempted from the open meetings law when meeting to discuss the hiring of a president, vice president, provost, department head or athletic coach.

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, expressed concern about whether that would create different standards for constitutionally established schools such as the University of Alabama and Auburn University and statutory schools such as Jacksonville State University and Troy University.

“All of them have the same sensitive positions where they’re trying to find somebody for those positions,” he said.

Ward said he thought other schools are already exempted under current state law.

Rep. Howard Sanderford, R-Huntsville, was one of the four who voted against the legislation.

“The question I have is why would we want to give the media any additional accountability and responsibility than they have now when they have not shown that they do a good job of handling accountability?” Sanderford said. “They want us to have accountability to do everything right, but somehow they drop the ball, but you never hear about it.”

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