ATHENS — BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Supreme Court will be asked to reconsider a fractured ruling that media advocates say gutted the state's open meetings law by giving public officials the right to discuss issues privately in small groups almost anytime they want.
Mark Montiel, representing former Montgomery County interim school superintendent Clay Slagle, said Thursday he will ask the court to revisit the decision released last week. Montiel said there's a good chance the justices will agree to review.
"On a 5-4 decision like this, obviously the chances of the court granting a rehearing are greater than with an 8-1 opinion," he said.
If it stands, the ruling could clear the way for members of public boards and commissions to gather in small groups and talk without providing public notice, Montiel said.
But the head of the Alabama Association of School Boards, which backed Montgomery County school officials in a lawsuit filed by Slagle, said concerns about government secrecy following the decision are overblown.
"I think it's an overreaction to say the open meetings law has been gutted, and I don't expect public bodies to behave as though it has been, especially school boards," said Sally Howell, executive director of the association.
A lawyer for the Alabama Press Association, Dennis Bailey, said the Supreme Court decision was a blow to public access in the state because officeholders could use it as justification for meeting without members of the public on hand.
"This is a road map for how to avoid deliberating tough issues in public," Bailey said. "They're going to use the small groups to hash out their differences and hold a public vote when they already know the outcome."
A divided court sided with Montgomery County's school board in the lawsuit filed by Slagle, who claimed members violated Alabama's open meetings law after he was not hired on a permanent basis in 2009.
A lower court rejected Slagle's claims that board members skirted the law by meeting in small groups rather than as a full board. The majority agreed with the board's claims that members were within the open meetings law when they met back-to-back in small groups in gatherings that weren't open to the public.
Slagle argued that the back-to-back meetings were illegal, but the court ruled otherwise.
"The Supreme Court has said those are not meetings," Howell said. "There were discussions, not deliberations, among board members."
Bailey said the press association, which supported Slagle in his initial appeal to the Supreme Court, would again support him as he asks for a second review of his claims.