Paint Rock, ALABAMA — In a town meeting Tuesday, June 12, Paint Rock, Alabama’s Mayor Brenda Fisk denounced allegations that guidelines attempting to shut out media and non-residents were never passed nor enacted.
The town meeting, still open to members of the press and the public, addressed several concerns pertaining to the city, including a copy of the meeting guidelines obtained by a local newspaper that eventually broke in local and national news’ headlines.
A couple of days earlier on June 8, Brandon Cox, publisher of the Jackson County Sentinel, wrote an Op-Ed entitled, “Paint Rock’s meeting rules are just flat illegal: Open Meetings: Not a suggestion, but the law.” This piece originally addressed copies of the Paint Rock city council meeting guidelines that the Jackson County Sentinel received. It stated:
“Members of the media, i.e.: newspaper, television, radio, etc. will not be allowed without prior approval form the county majority. When asking for approval, you must present a valid reason/justification for the media to attend.”
And, “Recordings of any meeting of the town council is not permitted. Posting of any Town minutes, email to council members, financial statements, etc., to ANY authorized media source is strictly forbidden.”
In an article by the Jackson County Sentinel, Fisk stated that the guidelines, proposed in January, were never meant to be enforced and were just presented for consideration to the council as a result of the 2013 disbanding of the Paint Rock Police Department, which sparked a heavy media presence.
“This is something the council had not voted on, has not voted on today, and will not vote on in the future.” – Paint Rock Mayor Brenda Fisk
“This is something the council had not voted on, has not voted on today, and will not vote on in the future,” Fisk said during the meeting that was reported by the Sentinel. “We want to continue with the code of conduct that we are under, those items are not part of a process or our government.”
YouTube video of the June 12, 2018 Paint Rock, Alabama, city council meeting. A citizen also questioned why the city council’s records are not available to citizens for review. Video placed by Gary Morgan.
The Sentinel wrote that Fisk was challenged by a council member about the lack of transparency of the guidelines and why they were even considering these guidelines. In response Fisk said, “I passed that for council’s consideration. It didn’t happen, has not happened and won’t happen. End of discussion.”
A few weeks later on June 26 at another city council meeting Fisk was accompanied by Scottsboro attorney Stephen Kennamer, writes the Sentinel. Kennamer, who, near the conclusion, asked for the floor and addressed the town’s current state and made suggestions, including a call for a master ordinance establishing procedures for meetings and an audit of the city’s financial records.
Cox wrote in the June 8 Op-Ed that the town’s council was in violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act and called for the residents of Paint Rock to encourage its town leaders to change the rulings “to prevent embarrassing, expensive litigation” and to recognize that the decisions were misguided.
He ended his piece that stated the Paint Rock city council was not in accordance with Section 9 of the Alabama Open Meetings Act, stating that “enforcement of this act may be sought by civil action brought in the county where the governmental body’s primary office is located by any media organization, any Alabama citizen impacted by the alleged violation to an extent which is greater than the impact on the public at large, the [Alabama] Attorney General, or the district attorney for the circuit in which the governmental body is located.”
“The law is the law, and it must be followed by the mayor of a small rural Alabama town and the administration in the White House alike.” – Brandon Cox, publisher of the Jackson County Sentinel.
“Advocating for transparency is important no matter the venue, and no matter the size of the population affected,” Cox said. “The law is the law, and it must be followed by the mayor of a small rural Alabama town and the administration in the White House alike.”
Word of the story spread across various media platforms in the region and even drew reinforcement from Michael Koretzky, regional director of SPJ Region 3. Prior to Fisk denouncing the guidelines, Koretzky offered to cover the expenses of one willing journalist to travel to Paint Rock and cover a city council meeting with the possibility of facing retaliation or even arrest.
“I had several serious inquiries from intrepid reporters. But their services weren’t required, since the mayor folded faster than Michael Cohen,” Koretzky said.
“So, it might’ve been far-fetched, but it’s also something I plan to bring back the next time some government asshole does something so blatantly unconstitutional.”
Paint Rock city council does have access to the state of Alabama training on open meetings laws for municipalities. In addition, a copy of the 2005 Alabama Sunshine Law is available online and is titled, “Out of the Sunshine and Into The Open: Understanding the New Open Meeting Law.”
The Society of Professional Journalists seeks to maintain constant vigilance in protecting the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press and encouraging a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely.
The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the
nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public’s access to documents and the government’s business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted. For more information about this committee contact Danielle McLean at email@example.com.
Marquis Holmes is a senior at Kennesaw State University majoring in journalism and emerging media with a minor in military leadership. He is also editor-in-chief of the Kennesaw State University newspaper, the Sentinel. Holmes is the fall intern for SPJ Region 3. He will be graduating in December 2018. firstname.lastname@example.org