Michelle Mann

The only people who are allowed to say that a city council, county commission or school board are not “transparent” are those who actually do attend the meetings.

That is the opinion of the above pictured person who has attended about 1 billion such meetings over the course of time.

A person who does not attend the meetings has no real idea of whether an issue has been discussed or not. Period.

Most people know that they can attend meetings of the city council, county commission or school board. Most people don’t attend—but that is a story for another day.

What people don’t always know is that work sessions convened by any of the above organizations are also open to the public.

A voting meeting is a more formal meeting following parliamentary procedure. There is often little public comment between the council/commission/board members during the voting meeting and that is sometimes misinterpreted by observers as being less than transparent.

I say “misinterpreted” because the real dialogue—sometimes heated—occurs at the work sessions.

Journalists generally agree that if you really want to know what’s happening in a city/county/school, go to the work session. That is where the rubber meets the road. That is where what needs to get said gets said.

A work session is held for the council/commission/board members to dig more deeply into issues. And they do. A good work session is exactly why most voting meetings run smoothly.

The Enterprise Board of Education held a work session last week that began an hour before the voting meeting. The EBOE president said that he plans to have a work session one hour before each of the scheduled board voting meetings.

This focus of this particular work session was the method used to determine which high school sport gets what money. The ECS Athletic Director and Superintendent explained the process in detail. They answered every board member question asked and they addressed each issue brought to the table. Some brainstorming went on with several suggestions verbalized.

The Dale County Commission and the Enterprise City Council both also have work sessions immediately preceding the voting meetings. There is a positive momentum and thoroughly transparent atmosphere created by that schedule. Kudos to the EBOE for coming on board with the back-to-back public meetings.

How does a person hear about the public meetings? Most notices are sent out by email and getting on the email list simply involves contacting the organization’s office. Don’t have email? Ask to get “paper” notification. The Southeast Sun puts the date of the next public meeting at the end of each article about the previous meeting and is accessible both in the print and online editions of the paper.

Each of the United States and the federal government have open meeting laws, referred to as “sunshine laws,” mandating that certain meetings are open to the public.

In 2015 then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill into law which adds teeth to the Alabama Open Meetings Act of 2005, an act that requires city councils, county commissions and school boards, among other governmental agencies, to notify the public of their meetings and to conduct their meetings in public. In short, it clarifies the original intent of the act.

The public has the right to know how its money is being spent. We might not agree with the decisions made but, as citizens, we do have the right to hear the reasoning and discussion that went in to making them. It is called transparency and it is why we can and should attend the public meetings.

Clearly, most governing bodies that this newspaper covers in a two-county area are cognizant of their responsibility as public servants. Most governing bodies that this newspaper covers in a two-county area also have working sessions where agenda items are hashed out, mulled over, discussed and argued about.

No votes can be taken in a working session but those working sessions are open to the public, as are the more formal business sessions that follow.

“Transparency promotes government accountability, and as elected officials, we are held to a higher standard for our decisions,” the governor said as he signed the bill into law. “It is important that our state’s open meetings law allows the public to see and be involved in government decisions.”

Complain about “lack of transparency” when it exists. That is your right—and obligation—as a citizen. Just make sure to attend the public meetings first.

Michelle Mann 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 mmann@southeastsun.com.

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