Dec. 19, 2017 — One Birmingham city councilor called Tuesday for a reevaluation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act, the state law requiring governmental meetings to be accessible to the public.
John Hilliard, the newly elected councilor for District 9, made his remarks at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting during discussion of an item that would allow members of council committees to appoint proxies when they are unable to attend a committee meeting.
The text of the resolution was not made available even to members of the council, and its sponsor, Councilor Lashunda Scales, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
But before the council voted to delay the item, it became the springboard for a freewheeling discussion about the legalities involved with committee meetings.
When Mayor Randall Woodfin suggested that the council and the mayor’s office convene for a “meeting separate from this meeting” to get into the specifics of what the council legally can or cannot do, Council President Valerie Abbott remarked that, as long as that meeting complied with the open meetings law, it could be arranged.
Hilliard said he would be looking forward to a “comprehensive meeting on ethics and what can be done,” but added that he also looked forward “to us being trendsetters that can help us restructure some of the law.”
“We need to help craft some of this legislation so that we can do business and not be questioned,” Hilliard said. “I just don’t like the fact that if I walk from my office down the hallway and there’s a neighborhood meeting going on, that I walk into that neighborhood meeting to speak, and two or three councilmen walk into that same meeting, all of a sudden, I’m making a violation if I say anything because there was more than one or two council people in the room.”
Hilliard appeared to be referring specifically to the Alabama Open Meetings Act, which was passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2005 and amended in 2015. That law prohibits the gathering of a quorum of any governmental body — which, according to law, includes the council’s three-person subcommittees — from meeting to deliberate policy without first providing at least 24 hours notice to the public and allowing the public to attend.
Meetings subject to this law do not have to be prearranged, but any meeting “during which the members of the governmental body deliberate specific matters that, at the time of the exchange, the participating members expect to come before the body, committee, or subcommittee at a later date” is subject to the law. These restrictions do not include social events, conventions, conferences, training programs, press conferences, media events, meetings with federal officials, or meetings to obtain background or educational material on a matter. The full texts of the Open Meetings Act and its amendments are available online.
“We can’t work in fear of what we do,” Hilliard said. “And I didn’t get elected to come out here and be afraid that, if one or two councilors got together, I can’t say nothing.”
Hilliard’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.