Photo courtesy of Coastal Alabama Partnership
Quorums of both the Baldwin and Mobile County Commissions met in Washington, D.C., last month without a public notice, but officials on both sides of the bay claim the trip was exempt from the Alabama Open Meetings Act and was for informational and advocacy purposes applicable to the region as a whole.
Coordinated by the Coastal Alabama Partnership (CAP), the Sept. 17 – 18 trip to the nation’s capital was an effort to “showcase collaborative efforts across the Coastal Alabama region” and bring together “elected leadership from both sides of Mobile Bay to meet federal legislators and department members regarding issues of concern to Coastal Alabama.”
CAP President and CEO Wiley Blankenship said the organization has hosted the trip four times in the past five years and it allows local elected officials the opportunity to meet with their counterparts at the federal level, while also advocating for economic opportunities and regulations favorable to the entire area.
“It’s federal meetings, briefs and discussions; they’re not talking about county or city business … but they are there to go over issues that affect the entire region when we need to get these men and women together to help us advocate,” Blankenship explained.
While the topics of the trips may vary, September’s trip primarily focused on imminent international trade decisions, which included the possible addition of tariffs on products or parts imported to local manufacturers. Local officials had meetings with Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones as well as Rep. Bradley Byrne. Within the two days they stayed, they also met with White House cabinet members, federal department heads and contractors.
Blankenship said CAP orchestrated the schedule and booked a block of hotel rooms, but each attendee was responsible for their own travel costs.
Of the roughly 20 people who attended this time, elected officials included Mayor Jeff Collier of Dauphin Island, Mayor Howard Rubenstein of Saraland, State Rep. Matt Simpson, Mobile County Commissioners Connie Hudson and Jerry Carl, Baldwin County Commissioners Joe Davis, Billie Jo Underwood and Jeb Ball and Councilman Henry Barnes of Bayou La Batre.
The two-thirds of the Mobile County Commission, as well as the three-fourths of the Baldwin County Commission who attended represented a quorum, but Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said having a quorum at the CAP trip, as well as “many, many others” over the years, is not uncommon.
“We are not discussing with each other anything that would come up before the County Commission for a vote,” she said. “We can have conversations, as long as it’s not about issues that would come before us for a vote. When we go on these trips typically it’s to meet with our federal legislators, to discuss community concerns about things like trade tariffs and workforce development; it’s nothing specific that would or is scheduled to come before any of us for a vote.”
Both Hudson and Carl said they take all precautions against breaking any provisions of the Open Meetings Act, even though it makes business a little more difficult on a three-member commission.
“There was a law passed by [former State Sen.] Bill Hightower a few years ago that allows us to discuss issues together, but we cannot come up with a determination of how we’re going to vote,” Carl said. But he also admitted the commission still has “a hard time communicating,” so much sometimes that he’s suggested adding more members.
“A larger commission would work better,” he said. “You need to be able to communicate on these issues with one another … when you can’t it may come across as if you are attacking or setting up” the other two commissioners when discussing more contentious issues in a public meeting, he said.
But Hudson said in spite of Hightower’s law, she and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood “follow the old rules.”
“We would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to Open Meetings Act issues and we are very, very careful,” she said. “I personally am very careful that’s not violated in any way, shape or form, not even through emails. But these trips are a different nature than what you would say is a private conversation between two commissioners that make up a quorum. These are meetings with other officials, federal departments on issues that affect our community, that are pertinent. As long as I’ve been in public office, which is 19 years, that has always been the case.”
Both Hudson and Carl spoke about the benefits of the trip, which included providing a local perspective on the effects of tariffs, knowledge about new grant opportunities and contacts to bolster workforce development.
A spokesperson for the Baldwin County Commission explained: “Baldwin County Commissioners, along with state elected officials, met with federal representatives and federal delegations who shared information about trends and updates related to their specific areas of expertise. Both of these activities are allowed under the Alabama Open Meetings Act.”
Blankenship compared the trip to training or development elected officials may receive by state organizations like the Association of County Commissions of Alabama or the Alabama League of Municipalities.
“This is very similar and we’re trying to tie directly into specific issues we face on the coast … honing it in if there is a specific decision that needs to be made or something [we] need,” he said. “If we’re going to make [the trip] count, every minute we’re working them.”
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