Alabama Open Meetings Act
The Alabama Open Meetings Act legislates the methods by which public meetings are conducted. Statutes 36.25A.1 - 36.25A.11 of the Alabama Code define the law.
Statement of purpose
The statement of purpose of the Open Meetings Act reads, "It is the policy of this state that the deliberative process of governmental bodies shall be open to the public during meetings."
What government meetings are open to the public?
The law states that all meetings of government bodies are open to the public, exempting executive sessions. The law defines a meeting as any gathering, whether prearranged or not, at which a quorum is present and will be deliberating public policy and the use of public funds.
Notable exemptions to this definition include:
- When a government agency meets with other state or federal agencies for the purposes of reporting or obtaining information, or seeking support.
- When a government body "attends social gatherings, conventions, conferences, training programs, press conferences, media events or otherwise gathers" but does not discuss or deliberate any matter that is currently being deliberated on or may reasonably be believed to be a topic before the body in the future.
Dale v. Birmingham News established that both formal and informal meetings qualify as meetings subject to the open meetings act.
What government bodies are subject to the laws?
The act defines government bodies as all boards, bodies and commissions of both the legislative and executive branches, including all political subdivisions, as well as all agencies associated with the use of government funds. The law also extends the open meeting act to apply to "all corporations and other instrumentalities" of the state whose members are either elected or appointed by the state. The law explicitly states that electronic communications cannot be used as a loophole for the Open Meetings Act provisions, thus eliminating the popular use of "email voting" to circumvent public deliberation. The Open Meetings Act does, however, allow for audio/visual recording in the meeting.
Notable exemptions to the definition of government body include:
- Legislative caucuses and coalitions.
- Alabama courts, which are left to the discretion of the Alabama Supreme Court.
- Organizations that public employees voluntarily join but possess no governmental functions.
The legislature falls under the definition of government body found at Alabama Code 36:25A:2 and is subject to the Alabama Open Meetings Act. However, legislative caucuses and coalitions are exempt.
The law requires all government bodies, including legislature committees and subcommittees, to provide notice of at least seven calendar days prior to public meetings. A number of bodies are exempt from this requirement, and thus essentially exempt from the open meetings law, most notably any bodies created to function in an advisory capacity that are not compensated for their time through public funds. The act also requires all statewide agencies to post notice of their meeting times online via the Alabama Secretary of State's website. The open meetings act, however, requires only the notification of the time, date and location of the meeting, and does not require the posting of an agenda. The law also provides exemptions for emergency hearings if the hearing is required to prevent harm to individuals or property or if the sole subject of the meeting is to accept the resignation of a member of the public body.
In Slawson & Furman v. Alabama Forestry Commission, the Alabama Supreme Court established that notice must be given of all meetings, including meetings that are intended only to convene into executive session.
The law requires that accurate minutes of all meetings are kept, including information about the location and time of the meetings as well as the list of members present.
All votes on matters before a governmental body must be made during the open or public portion of a meeting and voice votes are allowed. No votes can be taken in executive sessions and a governmental body may not vote by secret ballot.
The law also permits any individual attending the meeting to record the meeting by using any audio or video recording device.
|Common executive session exemptions|
|Personal privacy (including employees)|
|Purchase or sale of property|
|Exempt under other laws|
Any meeting where a vote, discussion or action will be taken, excluding executive sessions, is open to the public.
Executive sessions are not required, but may only be held in order to exclude public attendance from certain deliberations, which include:
- To discuss "the general reputation and character, physical condition, professional competence or mental health of individuals" and to discuss the job performance or personal characteristics of certain public employees. Employees who are not considered under this exemption include elected and appointed officials as well as any official who must submit a statement of economic interests to the state.
- In Montgomery Advertiser v. Montgomery County Board of Education, the courts in Alabama established that this exemption did not guarantee an executive session but often merely placed the burden on the body to prevent the release of personal information within public discussions.
- Disciplinary or dismissal hearings and discussion of formal written complaints or charges brought against public employees, students and individuals who are subject to the control of a public agency.
- Discussions that would fall under the attorney-client privilege. This exemption was established by judicial precedent, prior to inclusion within the law, in Dunn v. Alabama State University Board of Trustees.
- To discuss information whose release would hamper the security of governmental bodies, individuals or state infrastructure.
- To discuss information that would disclose the identity of an undercover law enforcement agent or informer or to discuss criminal investigations of a private individual or to discuss whether or not to file a criminal complaint.
- To discuss the market value of real property and proposed prices for purchase or sale, unless a member of the public agency has a personal interest in the proposed real estate venture.
- To discuss preliminary negotiations involved when the governmental body is in competition with private individuals, entities or other governments, or to discuss matters of the character defined or described in the Alabama Trade Secrets Act.
- To discuss strategy in preparation for union negotiations between the governmental body and a group of public employees.
- To deliberate and discuss evidence or testimony presented during a case hearing and vote upon the outcome of the proceeding or hearing if the governmental body is acting as a quasi-judicial body. The body either votes upon its decision in an open meeting or issues a written decision which may be appealed to a hearing officer, an administrative board, court or other body with authority to conduct a hearing or appeal of the public matter.
If the governmental body wishes to hold a public-excluded executive session, they must first convene an open meeting, then the body members may vote by majority to close it for the executive session. The body is not required to reconvene in open session but is required to announce if it plans to reconvene and approximately how long they will be in a closed session.
If a governmental body violates the Alabama Open Meetings Act, any citizen of Alabama, media organization or the Alabama Attorney General may file a complaint. A preliminary hearing on the complaint filed will be held no later than 10 business days after the date that the defendant(s) filed an initial response to the complaint. If the defendant(s) does not file an initial response, the hearing will be no later than 17 business days after the filing of the complaint. If the court rules against the public body, it has the right to enforce personal fines on members of the body of up to $1,000 or half a months salary, whichever is less, for each violation of the act. The government body is authorized but not required to pay the legal fees of individuals who violate the act.
The code also establishes that any action against a public body must be made within 60 (sixty) days of the realization of the violation of the law, and within two years of the actual violation.
Relevant legal cases
Here is a list of open meetings lawsuits in Alabama (cases are listed alphabetically; to order them by year, please the icon to the right of the "year" heading):
|Dale v. Birmingham News||1984|
|Dunn v. Alabama State University Board of Trustees||1993|
|Miglionico v. Birmingham News Company||1979|
|Montgomery Advertiser v. Montgomery County Board of Education||1991|
|Slawson & Furman v. Alabama Forestry Commission||1994|
State of Alabama
|State executive officers||
Governor | Attorney General | Secretary of State | Treasurer| Auditor| Superintendent of Education| Commissioner of Insurance| Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries| Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries| Commissioner of Labor| Public Service Commission|