Lessons in Federalism, State government sets the rules on Open Meetings

Someone needs to explain to the city council and mayor of Orange Beach that they in fact do not make the rules with regard to open meetings in the state of Alabama.

This past week, Mayor Tony Kennon ordered an audience member to stop recording a public meeting, alleging that because it was a city council meeting, they had the right to establish those rules. Kennon told the audience, “It’s a public meeting in a city facility, and I just laid down the rules. There will be no videos tonight. There’s no discussion. There’s no negotiation. That’s the bottom line. We’ve already suffered from — there will be no videos tonight.” When pressured as to why, Kennon stated, ““This is a public meeting by the city of Orange Beach, and we get to set the rules. It’s that simple. We’ve suffered an embarrassment by a group of people who are trying to hurt our citizens. You had a chance. You didn’t do the right thing. So we will have no more videography when it comes to discussions around anything to do with the oil spill or anything of that nature until such time we think is appropriate. So do the right thing, and we won’t have this issue. That’s the way I see it.”

Unfortunately for Mayor Kennon, it is not that simple. In Alabama, like in most other states, the state actually sets the rules for Open Meetings and how they are to be conducted (To find your states open meetings law, see WikiFOIA’s list of laws). Based on the Alabama Open Meetings Act, Kennon had no right to stop the citizen from taping the meeting so long as he or she wasn’t disrupting the meeting. In addition, embarrassment on the part of city officials for failures and the exertion of a citizens rights with regard to transparency do not constitute meeting disruptions but what should be the status quo of democratically enacted government.

Too often, local municipalities think they have the right to establish their own rules and forget those requirements which are outlined by the state and which guarantee the citizens right to participation. In addition, just because you are being targeted by citizens does not mean you have the power to fire back by revoking fundamental democratic rights. Accepting a public office comes with the assumption that you must accept criticisms and must be transparent in your operations and your decision making. If you are not able to do that, you should avoid governmental positions and seek a career elsewhere. Hopefully someone is contacting Mayor Kennon to inform him of the error of his ways and future violations can be prevented.

~Joshua Meyer
Editor of WikiFOIA
joshualmeyer@wikifoia.org

To read more on this, please see: Political Skinny: Orange Beach mayor bans videotaping of public hearing

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