County files for dismissal of lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 29, 2000

Staff Report

Sept. 28, 2000 10 PM

A motion to dismiss a case filed by the Alabama Press Association and The Messenger against the Pike County Commission has been filed.

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Pike County Attorney Allen Jones filed the motion earlier this month based on "the grounds that the Complaint fails to state a claim against the Defendant upon which relief can be granted."

Because of the pending litigation, Jones could not comment on the matter.

On Aug. 8, the state’s oldest trade organization comprised of 123 daily and non-daily newspapers, The Messenger and its publisher have filed a civil action suit in the Pike County Circuit Court against the commission over use of secret ballots.

The lawsuit alleges the Pike County Commission’s use of secret ballots in attempting to select an Emergency Management Agency director on Feb. 28 was in violation of Alabama law.

When commissioners voted on Feb. 28 to fill the vacant position, paper ballots were cast and resulted in each of the three candidates getting two votes apiece.

Pike County Commission Chairman called for another vote, which had the same result and the commission took no further action on the issue during that meeting.

Commissioners refused to publicly disclose how they voted on the issue.

Following challenges by The Messenger in the form of editorials and a letter to each commissioner, the commission asked Jones to request an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter.

Alabama 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.

When the suit was filed, APA director Felicia Mason said the APA believes action by public bodies to vote by secret ballot is in violation of the Alabama Sunshine Law.

The state’s Sunshine Law was established to ensure public bodies do not operate in secrecy on the basis open government should provide any citizen access to public meetings and records.

The suit requests the commission not use secret ballots in the future or deny access to records that show how members vote. It also requests the court declare the Alabama Sunshine Law require the commission to vote verbally and prohibit secret ballots.

The suit asks for no compensation for any of the filing organizations, only that a ruling be made in court that would require members of the Pike County Commission to disclose their votes to the public and to cease from voting by paper ballot in the future.