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State law requires access to meetings
This is the second in a series dealing with Alabama's public records and open meetings laws.
Second in a series
Leada DeVaney, Hartselle Enquirer
A Hartselle City Council meeting can be a lonely place.
Except for an occasional controversial issue, there are usually less than 30 people at a Hartselle City Council meeting. The vast majority of those in attendance are municipal employees or the council members themselves.
But 30 people in the meeting room is a lot for many governmental groups, including city councils and school boards. With the exception of Morgan County Commission meetings, few people attend most government meetings.
But under Alabama law, they are certainly allowed.
"Alabama's Public Records law and Open Meetings Law are among the best in the nation for promoting sunshine on official proceedings," State Attorney General Bill Pryor said. "I believe that all questions involving the right to inspect governmental records and to attend meetings of governmental entities should be decided in support of public access, with the very narrow exceptions provided by statute or decisions of the court."
Alabama's open meetings law, commonly referred to as "The Sunshine Law," provides that all meetings of any government group "charged with the duty of disbursing any funds belonging to the state, county or municipality" or "delegated (with) legislative or judicial function" must allow the public to attend.
One of the exceptions, according to Alabama courts, is if the group is discussing the "good name and character" of an individual.
Courts have ruled "good name and character" to include personal traits such as honesty, loyalty, integrity or reliability. It does not include someone's job performance.
Governmental groups are also allowed to meet behind closed doors to hear from attorneys about a pending lawsuit but are not allowed to discuss the ramifications of the suit.
The laws change, however, for some school board closed meetings. Because the board often deals with juveniles, it may meet behind closed doors to discuss suspensions or other disciplinary actions.
Attending an illegal closed meeting is a misdemeanor and offenders can be charged up to $500.
Governmental groups are required to notify the public of any special called meetings. This can be done through posting a notice at city hall, for example. They are not required, except in the case of a public hearing, to let the public speak at a meeting.
In 1998, the Alabama Attorney General issued an opinion stating "a citizen does not have an unbridled right to express their views at a public meeting."
Most local government groups, however, offer a time for public comment. Often, the groups limit the comment to five minutes or less.