AG opinion fails to protect public interests

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 15, 2000

Staff Editorial

June 14, 2000 10 p.m.

The Pike County Commission has the go-ahead from the Alabama Attorney General that would allow members to continue votes in secrecy on issues that affect Pike County based on a ruling that was issued Monday.

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The Commission sought the ruling after The Messenger challenged the right of commissioners to deprive the public of information regarding how each commissioner voted for emergency management director. After all, a community that cannot determine how its elected representatives vote on issues cannot make informed decisions about whether their leaders are serving them adequately.

The Attorney General Bill Pryor’s opinion states, "the Alabama Sunshine Law does not prohibit voting by secret ballot in exceptional circumstances." It also states, "Written ballots should only be used when a decision absolutely cannot be reached with voice votes or a show of hands." The conclusion with regard to paper ballots is, "the Pike County Commission should use this method only in limited cases similar to those previously approved by the Alabama Supreme Court."

Furthermore, the ruling allows the votes of commissioners to remain secret, stating, "Members of the Pike County Commission are not required to disclose their individual votes to the public."

The Attorney General’s opinion has apparently solidified the belief of commissioners that they can continue to operate outside the public eye. The opinion cuts the heart and soul out of open meetings laws by declaring that elected officials can circumvent the public’s right to know.

It is a shame that the Attorney General would issue an opinion that could empower elected leaders to return to backroom political antics, offering them a cloak of secrecy they can hide under when issues like tax increases, personnel hiring and bond issues arise.

While the Attorney General’s ruling disapproves of making these decisions except in "exceptional circumstances," it fails to define "exceptional circumstances," and to us, the hiring of an EMA director is indeed far from "exceptional."

Moving beyond the Pike County Commission, Alabama voters and taxpayers are at a crossroads. How much are voters entitled to know? How can they make decisions regarding who will run their communities when they are deprived of the right to know what decisions their leaders have made?

The ramifications of this opinion run deep into the foundation of democracy like ever-growing cobwebbed cracks that threaten to erode the structure and the principles on which our country was founded.

The Attorney General’s opinion is a bad one which will invite future misuse. The result is not only that he state’s media sources lose their ability to report, but also that state’s taxpayers lose their right to know about the individual decisions of their elected leaders.

Commissioners have asked The Messenger to issue an apology and to retract any statements that their actions fall outside the spirit of Sunshine laws. We do not feel we should apologize for standing up for the rights of the state’s taxpayers.

An Attorney General’s opinion, while legally recognized as a guide by which government officials may conduct themselves, is far from binding law. It’s an opinion, like many others out there, and in this case, we believe Mr. Pryor and his office are off base. We still contend that the spirit of Sunshine Laws has been violated through the use of secret ballots, whether or not the Attorney General believes them to be legal. The fact that the Attorney General believes it may be legal to cast secret ballots, does not make it right or good politics.

The issue is not about the Pike County Commission, the Attorney General, or about "picking on" any public body or institution. The issue is about whether or not you, members of the community, have the right to know whether the leader who represents you voted himself a pay raise, or voted to pave your road, or voted to raise your taxes.

We are debating your basic right to know how your leaders choose to run your community, while those who oppose this fundamental belief in open government are fighting to protect themselves and their political interests. If not for protecting themselves, why else would a secret vote render a different conclusion than an open vote?

Every citizen has the right to know the actions of their elected representatives and every citizen should challenge any authority that believes or rules otherwise, whether it is the Pike County Commission, the state’s Attorney General or anyone else in the bureaucratic chain.

We cannot in good conscience apologize for believing the commission’s decision to deprive the public of the right to know how they vote is wrong.  

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