Friday, June 15, 2018

Ala. town council bans press, which editor calls 'flat illegal'

UPDATE, June 20: "In what most cases would not be considered newsworthy, the Town of Paint Rock held a regularly scheduled town council meeting Tuesday evening – and the meeting was open to members of the press and the public," the Sentinel reports. Mayor Brenda Fisk "went on to explain that the guidelines were presented for consideration to the council, but never passed or enacted."

A small town in the northeastern corner of Alabama has voted to close its open meetings to non-residents and the press. Paint Rock (pop. 200) also forbids recording meetings or passing along recordings of meetings or any other town council information to the press, a set of rules that Brandon Cox, editor and publisher of area newspaper the Jackson County Sentinel, calls "flat illegal" in an editorial.

The Alabama Open Meetings Act requires all governmental meetings to be open to the public, Cox notes in an editorial. But the town clerk confirmed for him that the policies were real, and though the town doesn't have an attorney on staff or retainer, "the town clerk said she thought the mayor had consulted the Alabama League of Municipalities about the guidelines."

Paint Rock's mayor, Brenda Fisk, defended the law to Cox, saying "What goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock," and "I really don’t see the benefit for anyone outside of Paint Rock or who doesn’t own property here to come to these meetings. They’re open to anyone who lives here. Anyone else can stand outside the door, but I can close the door." 

Fisk expressed displeasure at an unofficial Paint Rock Facebook page that posted local news, commentary and information on town council meetings. The page is apparently run by a former town council member, whom Fisk referred to as a "disgruntled citizen who doesn't like that we have a government and can't do whatever they want to do."

Cox called some attorneys specializing in municipal law and learned that Paint Rock's rules violate the Alabama Open Meetings Act and are indefensible in court. Not only that, Cox writes, but the rules are "diametrically opposed to ideals in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provide for a free press and its responsibility to hold those who govern accountable."

If the press is to serve the governed, instead of the governors, as the Founding Fathers intended, the press must be able to attend open meetings without restriction, Cox writes. "I respect that the town’s leadership is attempting to make hard decisions and improvements. The law does not allow policies that censor public input or reject media coverage, however."

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