Cassie Gibbs

Words like transparency, serial meetings, executive sessions, and others are jargon journalists who have ever covered a meeting of a governing body of any kind have heard over and over again.

Why do we hear these words over and over again? Well, these words have to do with our job as journalists and everyone’s rights as citizens to know what all governing bodies are doing.

Transparency, the definition of a meeting and other like ideas are an important part of the governing process, and they are all at the center of a piece of legislation that was enacted in Alabama in 2005.

One of the important parts of the Alabama Open Meetings Act is its definition of what a meeting is.

The act states that “the deliberative process of governmental bodies shall be open to the public during meetings,” with deliberation being defined as “an exchange of information or ideas among a quorum of members of a governmental body intended to arrive at or influence a decision as to how the members of the governmental body should vote on a specific matter that, at the time of exchange, the participating members expect to come before the body immediately following the discussion or at a later time.”

Meetings were defined as “a prearranged gathering of a quorum of a subcommittee of a governmental body,” or a subcommittee of the governmental body, “during which this body discusses specific matters that are expected to come before the body or to approve the expenditure of public funds.”

This act even describes what a meeting is not, which includes training programs, conferences, or other situations where the body is not deliberating.

Deliberation is required by the law to be made in public, unless held in an executive session, which can only be held for certain situations, which are also laid out in the Open Meetings Act.

Now, this information may seem random or it could be a lot to take in. Why is this topic even important to you readers, members of the general public and basically people who do not regularly attend every governmental meeting ever held?

This information is important because regardless of your meeting attendance, what any governing body does affects you in some way, shape or form.

School boards, city councils and county commissions are just a few of the governmental bodies that affect our everyday lives in this area. There are also state agencies and other, larger entities that are required to follow the law when conducting business.

The Alabama Open Meetings Law is in place to help make sure funny business doesn’t happen behind closed doors with any group of decision makers.

This does not mean that some groups will not attempt to hide their actions. One group was recently caught by the Alabama Supreme Court, and a vote for transparency was made.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up anything you can on a lawsuit between PEEHIP and the Alabama Education Association. If you don’t know who those two groups are, well, I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

The Alabama Education Association is “an advocate organization that leads the movement for excellence in education and is the voice of education professionals in Alabama.”

“The Alabama Education Association provides legal assistance, professional development opportunities, great member benefits and a strong voice for education in the Alabama Legislature,” according to the group’s website. “The AEA serves as the advocate for its members and leads in the advancement of equitable and quality public education for Alabama’s diverse population.”

PEEHIP stands for the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan. According to the Retirement Services of Alabama website, this self-funded health plan was established in 1983 “to provide quality healthcare insurance benefits for the health and well-being of our members.”

In 2016, teachers received a 4 percent cost of living raise from the state, which was promptly followed by a raise in health care premiums from PEEHIP.

AEA then sued PEEHIP, claiming it violated the Open Meetings Law to reach the decision to raise premiums.

According to an al.com article, PEEHIP “raised the base monthly premium for individual coverage from $15 to $30. The base rate for family coverage other than the spouse was raised $30, to $207 a month. There was also a $100 surcharge to also cover the spouse.”

How did the AEA come to the conclusion that PEEHIP violated the Open Meetings Act? Well, PEEHIP announced the premium raise after attending what the group called a closed training session in April 2016 that was “limited to (PEEHIP) board members and PEEHIP staff only,” according to the ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court.

In 2017, a Montgomery circuit judge ruled the training session and subsequent decision to raise premiums was in violation of the Open Meetings Act, which PEEHIP then appealed, moving the case to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court held hearings on the case in November 2018, and in its ruling, which was released on Friday, March 8, it found that PEEHIP did, in fact, violate the law because the information provided in the closed meeting, which was voted on in the public meeting later the same day, meant the meeting was not a training meeting.

Now, I’m telling you all of this not only because teachers are amazing individuals who do not get nearly enough credit for the work they do, but also because they received a pretty amazing return on fighting for themselves and transparency.

The al.com article states that Alabama teachers will now be given back “more than $130 million sitting in escrow, which includes the premium increase and interest earned.”

In case you didn’t catch that, this decision means it pays to be transparent. What’s also interesting about this decision is that it comes just in time because this is the week the Alabama Open Meetings Act was signed by the governor in 2005.

March 10-16 is also Sunshine Week, which is an annual “celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community,” according to sunshineweek.org.

I just have to say it. What a way to shine.

Cassie Gibbs is a staff writer for The Southeast Sun and Daleville Sun-Courier. The opinions of this writer are her own and not the opinion of the paper. She can be reached at (334) 393-2969 or by email at cgibbs@southeastsun.com.

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