Secret ballots legal, state AG rules

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Staff Writer

June 12, 2000 10 PM

Alabama’s Attorney General Bill Pryor has issued an opinion stating the Pike County Commission did not violate the law when its members voted by secret ballot on Feb. 28.

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During that meeting, the commission voted by secret ballot when attempting to select an Emergency Management Agency director. Although secret ballots were cast, the three candidates each received two votes.

The act was questioned by The Messenger regarding its legality and County Attorney Allen Jones requested an opinion from the Attorney General, which was issued June 9 and received by Jones on Monday.

According to Pryor’s opinion, "the Sunshine Law does not prohibit voting by written ballots, the Pike County Commission should use this method only in limited cases similar to those previously approved by the Alabama Supreme Court."

In response to whether or not the commissioners have to reveal their individual votes, the Attorney General found "written ballots, when used in a public meeting, must be retained by the secretary until it is certain that there will be no recount. Members of the Pike County Commission are not required to disclose their individual votes to the public."

After distributing copies of Pryor’s opinion, Jones told the commissioners they can be "reassured" they did not act improperly when casting the secret ballots.

"I knew the entire time what the law was," Jones said.

The opinion recommends the commission "have a written policy specifying the limited times when written ballots can be used, and stating that the result is to be immediately announced, recorded, and opened to public inspection."

He said he only remembers two or three times when commissioners have voted by secret ballot when they believed a secret ballot would "lead to a truer result."

Jones said reports by The Messenger were "false" and "offensive" and "The Messenger needs to apologize" to the commission.

"I think The Messenger jumped the gun in accusing you of breaking the law," Jones told commissioners during their work session Monday night. "The opinion speaks for itself."

Commissioner Charlie Harris said he never doubted that the commission’s actions were not wrong.

Commission Chairman Larry Meeks agreed, but had stronger words to say.

"We were not in any violation," Meeks said, adding the commission suffered "vicious attacks" by the newspaper.

"We’ve never tried to hide anything from the media," Meeks said.

In other business, the commission:

· Were updated on the courthouse renovation project. Plans are for the county to go out for bids next week.

· Approved for county employees to have both July 3 and July 4 off for the holiday.

· Voted to apply for Transportation Enhancement Funds and ask for assistance in funding the county’s litter program.

· Granted a restaurant retail liquor license to Pamela Harris of Touch of Class.

· Named a dirt road off Smart Road "Denzil Day Road."

· Members asked residents to vote in the July 27 run off elections.