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Increasing citizens' right to know

By Staff
Sen. Zeb Little, Guest columnist
It is fitting this week, as we recognize "Sunshine Week In Alabama," that our state is on the verge of having a new, much improved open meetings law.
It gave me great pleasure last week that the open meetings reform proposal I sponsored passed and became the first bill this session to be sent to the Governor for his signature. The fight to improve our open meetings law and increase our citizens' right to know what happens in government has been a long time coming.
For almost 100 years, the Alabama Press Association and many legislators have made numerous efforts to strengthen the open meetings law to better ensure openness in government. All of those efforts have failed because special interest groups have succeeded in blocking these efforts at every turn.
Letting the sun shine into the public arena is the key to building confidence and increasing accountability for state government. This piece of historic legislation does that in many ways.
This proposal helps elected officials, the public and the media by better defining a meeting, limiting the reasons a public body can go into executive session, requiring minutes be held of executive meetings and prohibiting secret or written ballots.
In addition, the proposal establishes clear notice procedures for all public meetings, allows open taping of meetings by local citizens, defines what constitutes a quorum and allows the courts to invalidate actions taken in illegal meetings.
These are tough, new guidelines that will greatly improve the ability of taxpayers to know all the discussions and actions taken by their elected officials.
Passage of this law did not come easy, and there are many people and organizations that deserve credit for their support. Cities, counties, school boards, hospital boards and the Alabama Press Association supported the legislation. That is a coalition we never had before. This proposal enjoyed bipartisan support from the leadership of the Alabama Senate, Alabama House, and Governor's office. That is historic.
Alabama faces many challenges in the future. Our success in dealing with those challenges will be determined by our ability to put partisanship aside and work for the betterment of our state. Success will also be determined by our ability to have strong support from the public. That strong support cannot happen without greater public trust in the operation of state government.
That is why our success in passing this proposal into law is so important. Open access is one key to improving public trust in government. The more the taxpayers are allowed to know about the problems we face, the decisions we are making, the choices we have and the results from those choices, the more involved and supportive they will be.
As I asked at one public hearing on this bill, "Will this new open meetings proposal totally change Alabama and right all of our wrongs – of course not." It will, however, begin to build a level of trust and accountability that is essential for any future reform of our state government that involves our budgets.
This week, as we focus on openness in government and increased access for the public, I want to thank all of those who supported this significant reform. From the leadership of the Senate and House to the Governor's office to all the members of the Alabama Legislature, this proposal could not have become reality so quickly in this session without broad, bi-partisan support.
Finally, governmental bodies have clear guidelines on how public meetings can and should be held. That is good for government and good for the people of Alabama.
Zeb Little is a member of the Alabama State Senate. He represents all or part of Cullman, Lawrence and Winston Counties.

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