Meetings misstep: Incoming Piedmont council holds secret meeting, takes secret vote
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Nov 03, 2012 | 4731 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PIEDMONT — Just days before taking office, Piedmont’s incoming administration appeared to have fallen on the wrong side of the Alabama Open Meetings Act by holding one meeting without giving proper notice and voting by secret ballot in a second meeting.

In a meeting Tuesday not made known to the media or to the public, Mayor-elect Rick Freeman met with four incoming council members — Brenda Spears, Frank Cobb, Ben Keller and Terry Kiser — to discuss the basic mechanics of how to hold City Council meetings. Freeman served on the Piedmont council in the mid-1990s.

That meeting came to light on Thursday evening at a properly announced meeting to discuss council organization. At the Thursday meeting, Freeman called for the newly elected council to select its next mayor pro tem. Freeman asked that the voting be done with secret ballots, which are prohibited by state law.

The new administration is to be sworn in Monday.

The Alabama Open Meetings Act says that all votes of public bodies should take place in open meetings for which proper notice was given, and that unless otherwise allowed to do so, “a governmental body may not vote by secret ballot.” The act also says that “any person elected to serve on a governmental body shall be counted in the determination of whether a quorum of that governmental body is present.” The act applies to elected officials even before they assume office.

When contacted Friday, the Alabama League of Municipalities declined to comment as to the legality of the secret ballots and Tuesday meeting, citing that the league represents the interests of its member municipalities.

However, George Monk, Anniston’s former city manager, said Friday there’s “no question” about the status of newly elected government leaders.

“An elected official who has not been sworn in comes under all of those laws. And in particular the Open Meetings Act … elected, but not sworn in. You’re still under it,” Monk said.

In a 4-3 secret-ballot vote Thursday, the group chose Frank Cobb as mayor pro tem over the current pro tem, Bill Baker. Cobb is one of four new council members who met with Freeman on Tuesday.

Baker expressed concern on Thursday over voting with secret ballots.

“Why don’t we just vote out loud?” Baker asked, to which Freeman replied, “Because I don’t want anybody mad at anybody.” Attempts to reach Baker on Friday were unsuccessful.

City Clerk Michelle Franklin attended the Thursday meeting but said by phone Friday that she was unaware a vote was to take place.

“I thought the meeting was to talk about the upcoming organizational meeting on Monday,” Franklin said. Franklin said she was not aware there would be a quorum at the Tuesday meeting, and said that Freeman told her he would be meeting with two incoming council members to help guide them in the process of how to conduct council meetings.

Attempts to reach Franklin for comment Friday about the legality of the secret-ballot voting and the Tuesday meeting were unsuccessful.

When asked if he was aware that holding a vote with secret ballots and meeting without giving proper notice were illegal, Freeman said no, and that he believed that “Until we’re sworn in we’re not even officers of the city.’

When told that such meetings appeared to be prohibited by law, Freeman said that “It might have been. And I apologize … If we did something wrong I’ll take full responsibility for it.”

Freeman said he was unaware of any discussion among the incoming council at Tuesday’s meeting about whom to appoint as mayor pro tem.

“I was not in there with them. I just explained to them what the mayor pro tem is, and they were all sitting there talking amongst themselves and I went out the door,” Freeman said.

The mayor pro tem serves in place of an elected mayor in the case of the mayor’s absence.

He never asked the four council members to discuss their votes for mayor pro tem, Freeman said, but that “I feel like a lot of them knew who the mayor pro tem was going to be because some of them feel like they wanted a change, or there’s some bad blood, and the reason I did the secret ballot was I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were pushed into voting for anybody,” Freeman said.

When asked if they discussed their votes for mayor pro tem, Councilwoman-elect Brenda Spears said “I can’t remember. You’ll have to call Rick (Freeman) and get that from him. I wasn’t there the whole time and I was in and out.”

When asked again, Spears said “No comment.”

When asked if she knew meeting without giving proper notice was illegal, Spears said “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Frank Cobb said that he does not believe that council members-elect are covered by the Alabama Open Meetings Act. “We’re nothing more than citizens,” Cobb said.

But the law states otherwise, stating clearly that “Any person elected to public office, whether or not that person has taken office,” is covered under the act.

Cobb said that Spears asked him at Tuesday’s meeting if he would accept the position of mayor pro tem if asked, and that Kiser and Keller were present.

“I said, I would if I was asked,” Cobb said. “Rick (Freeman) wasn’t even in the room with us.”

Attempts to reach Ben Keller and Terry Kiser for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.

The four newcomers to the council and the mayor-elect are scheduled to take an orientation for new elected officials sponsored by the Alabama League of Municipalities on Nov. 14 in Birmingham.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.
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