Behind closed doorsPublished 4:05pm Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Nothing slaps a newspaper reporter in the face harder than a closed door when elected officials are seated around a conference table inside discussing public business.
It’s not because the news media have a greater legal right to be there than any other citizen. Simply put, it’s illegal.
Alabama’s Open Meetings Law prohibits a voting majority of elected officials from assembling and discussing public business. In Hartselle’s case, that means if more than two council members come together and public business is brought up by one or more of them they are breaking the law. The only exceptions are when the good name and character of a person or negotiations for the sale or purchase of city-owned property are being discussed during a called executive session.
As a newspaper reporter with long-standing experience. I can say without hesitation that illegal public meetings have not been a problem in Morgan County in the past. However, because constituents, other than reporters, seldom darken the doorways of public meeting places, I can see how an official might get the idea that the electorate could care less whether meetings are held privately or in a designated public meeting place.
A spotlight was put on this subject recently by a neighbor newspaper that pointed a questioning finger at the monthly social gatherings of Morgan County’s municipal and county commission officials.
Those who attend the dinner meetings maintain that they are not being held in violation of the Open Meetings Law. They simply serve the purpose of allowing officials with similar responsibilities to build bonds of friendship and cooperation, share success stories and fellowship with one another. They have even gone as far as to invite the media and the Decatur/Morgan County Chamber of Commerce has agree to pick up the tab.
In retrospect, I have been there and done that as a former mayor of Hartselle. The experience was helpful and enabled me to do a better job of looking out for the interests of Hartsellians. However, as a reporter I can see where such gatherings could lead to business being done under the table. Therefore, any voting majority of a governing body should avoid coming together privately, even though with good intentions, no matter if it’s in Hartselle, Montgomery or the nation’s capital.
Clif Knight is a staff writer for the Hartselle Enquirer.