The Alabama Supreme Court today ruled that public officials must conduct the public’s business in public.
The Court ruling addressed attempted loopholes, affirming that the Open Meetings Act does not allow public officials to meet in private for “training” when they that training is just a presentation from their staff.
The Court agreed with the Alabama Education Association that the state’s education employee insurance board, known as PEEHIP, violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act in 2016 when it met behind closed doors to discuss a premium increase for teachers and other education employees.
The PEEHIP board voted in public later the same day to raise premiums for public education employees.
“This ruling helps put teeth in the Open Meetings Act,” Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason said, “by interpreting provisions that had not been addressed previously in such a way as to promote the purpose of the law.”
The Court emphasized that asking questions of staff in a private session is “deliberation,” which the law says must be conducted in public. The decision read in part, “The holding of a closed session immediately before an open session where the same materials are presented to a board for its consideration provides an opportunity for board members to ask the more controversial questions of a presenter outside the presence of the public.”
“We cannot conclude that the morning session was merely a ‘training program,'” the ruling stated. “It is clear that the staff presentation regarding the same matters that would be considered for a vote later in the day and that included proposals to increase insurance premiums does not fall within the ‘training-program’ exception.”
“This is a great day for educators in Alabama public schools,” AEA President Sherry Tucker said in a press release. “Today’s decision reinforces the fact that AEA is the unquestioned leader in defending the rights of the dedicated individuals who educate Alabama’s children and that when we see a wrong being done to them, we will dedicate the resources necessary to see the matter through.”
The AEA also claimed victory in a Facebook post, saying the refunds of the increase in premiums from 2016-2018 will help educators whose insurance premiums completely negated a pay raise in 2016.
The 2016 increases 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.
Hundreds of educators from across the state filled the Alabama Supreme Court chamber in November to listen to oral arguments in the case.
The ruling means more than $130 million sitting in escrow, which includes the premium increase and interest earned, will be returned to teachers and other education employees impacted by the PEEHIP increase, which became effective in 2017, but AEA said on social media today that is unclear how or when the refunds will be distributed.
In the press release following the ruling, AEA said Circuit Court Judge Johnny Hardwick, who ruled in 2017 the meeting violated the Open Meetings Act, will handle the administration of refunds. “AEA will be actively involved in that process to its conclusion,” the statement read.
PEEHIP officials told AL.com, “lawyers for PEEHIP are in the process of reviewing and analyzing the Supreme Court’s decision so they can determine the appropriate course of action.”