Lawsuit challenges use of secret ballots

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2000

Staff Report

August 9, 2000 8 p.m.

The Alabama Press Association, the state’s oldest trade organization comprised of 123 daily and non-daily newspapers, The Messenger and its publisher have joined in filing a civil action suit in Circuit Court Tuesday against the Pike County Commission over use of secret ballots.

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The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Gary McAliley.

The lawsuit alleges that the Pike County Commission’s use of secret ballots in attempting to select an Emergency Management Director on February 28, 2000 was in violation of Alabama law.

"Alabama’s Sunshine Law was established to ensure that public bodies do not operate in secrecy," Felicia Mason, APA director said. "The Alabama Press Association feels strongly that public bodies voting by secret ballot is a violation of this law and is contrary to its intent. An open government should provide any citizen access to public meetings and public records."

Members of the Pike County Commission, seeking to fill the vacant position of emergency management director, had different opinions about who to select to fill the job.

According to the official minutes of the Feb. 28 meeting, Commission Chairman Larry Meeks called for a ballot vote from members for the appointment of an EMA director.

Paper votes were cast and resulted in each of three candidates getting two commission votes each.

Meeks again called for a ballot vote with the same result. The commission took no further action on the issue during the meeting.

Members of the Pike County Commission refused to publicly disclose how they voted on the issue.

The Pike County Commission, after being challenged on the issue through editorials and letters written by The Messenger, filed a request for an Attorney General’s opinion. State Attorney General Bill Pryor’s office issued an opinion stating that the actions of the Pike County Commission fall within his interpretation of the law.

Phone calls to Meeks and Pike County Commission attorney Allen C. Jones seeking comment on the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon were not returned.

Messenger publisher Rick Reynolds said the lawsuit was filed to maintain the principles of open government.

"The Messenger stands firmly behind the ideals of open government." publisher Rick Reynolds said. "Voting by secret ballot cuts the heart out of the state’s open meetings law and violates the public’s right to know. When we elect and empower fellow citizens to represent us in government, we have the absolute right to know how our representatives vote."

The suit seeks that the Pike County Commission cease from further use of secret ballots and from denying access to records showing how members vote. It also requests that the court declare that the Alabama Sunshine Law requires the commission to vote via voice and prohibit votes by secret ballot.