An individual can express his or her views on matters at a meeting of a County Commission. The County Commission can promulgate reasonable guidelines regarding public participation at it's meetings.
May the chairman of the Limestone County Commission refuse to allow a particular citizen or citizens to address the Commission during it's regularly scheduled meetings, because the Chairman may be opposed to the subjects and/or issues which the citizen(s) may bring up, or because the Chairman may personally dislike that citizen(s)?
If other citizens are indeed allowed to address the Commission during the allotted time for public comments, can the Chairman rule that one or two specific citizens are indefinitely ineligible to speak?
When a board sits in Public Meetings to conduct public business and hear the views of citizens, it may not discriminate between speakers on the basis of their employment or the content of their speech. The right of the public to be present at meetings of a public body includes the right to share their views on the matter before the body, (see reasonable guidelines above, that is key to the discussion to follow.) Reasonable time, place and manner regulations are permissible, and any content-based restriction must be narrowly promulgated to effectuate a compelling state interest.
April 1998 letter excerpt from AG Bill Pryor on the same issue:
"A public body has the right to determine whether public comments will be allowed, except in those cases where the law requires a public hearing. While the law does not mention public participation at meetings of a public body, it is good public policy to allow citizens and taxpayers to express their views within guidelines and restrictions established by that body."# # #
We used the above excerpts in prefacing this post to make a point; despite the fact that the Alabama laws do not specifically address public participation, the Sunshine Law (Open Meetings Act) was designed to encourage, not prohibit, public participation. Its other purpose was to improve transparency of government.
The problem lies in the lack of clear delineations in the Sunshine Law and that it leaves much discretion to local governments. On one hand, that is a good thing as it allows municipalities to establish their own criteria to enhance the efficiency of their public meetings. On the other, it is abused and utilized as a tool to dissuade public participation and limit discussion.
Case in point:
Last Tuesday, the Vincent City Council was scheduled to have their monthly meeting, which was preceded by a non-public workshop in which they were to decide where to have the meeting. If that sounds confusing to the reader, it was to the citizens as well. This was highly unusual and disorganized, in addition to being illegal.
The law states that there must be a vote in public by all council members to change the location of any regularly scheduled meeting. That fact was pointed out to the Mayor the Friday before this meeting by Council person Ralph Kimble. The response from the Mayor was "We can't cancel the meeting." Even though the Mayor was informed that the Tuesday meeting was illegal, he was unwilling to cancel it and follow state law.
On that following Tuesday, after the non-public workshop and some pressure from the citizens, the Mayor came out and told the media that they were going to cancel the scheduled City Cancel meeting. He stated that; "We accidentally forgot to vote on the meeting change."
He did not forget, he was attempting to break the law and rush through a zoning ordinance and take a final vote on the controversial quarry proposed for Vincent. Because he had been told the preceding Friday that there was a violation of the law, he cannot come out the following Tuesday and attempt to spin the situation.
When this meeting was canceled on Tuesday, there was no rescheduled time given. The cut off time to sign up to address the council at meetings is Wednesday @ 4:30. Late Wednesday afternoon, in the local county newspaper, a story was placed that stated the meeting had been rescheduled. That alone left very little time for any citizen to make the deadline to sign up to speak.
Upon closer reading of the news item, the rescheduled meeting had morphed from a City Council meeting, which it originally was, into a "special meeting." The ordinances of Vincent's meeting regulations for "special meetings" do not allow for any public comment.
The intent of the Vincent City Council is very clear; they did not and do not want any more public comment or public participation. This latest maneuver, though it may not be illegal, is without question a violation of the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.