Newspaper joins board of trustees fight

ALABAMA — Student and professional journalists have joined togetherto sue the Auburn University Board of Trustees because of what they believeare violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

Six professional newspapers, along with the Alabama Press Associationand Auburn’s student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, filed a lawsuitFeb. 28 accusing the 14-member board of violating the open-meetings lawby holding regular executive sessions before its regularly scheduled meetings.The suit also asks the court to prevent the board from holding future secretmeetings.

The newspapers contend the open-meetings law only allows such privatemeetings for the purpose of discussing the good name and character of anindividual or to receive legal advice from an attorney. The board, however,says the law only applies when a quorum — at least half of a meeting body– is present.

In response to the suit, the board filed a complaint for declaratoryjudgment arguing that “a gathering of fewer than eight members of the board”does not fall under the open-meetings law. The complaint also argues thatin the absence of a quorum, the board can only recommend action by theuniversity and thus should not be considered a board that has “any legislativeor judicial function.”

Scott Brown, president and publisher of The Montgomery Advertiser,the initiator of the suit, said the newspapers are going to move to quashthe complaint. Dennis Bailey, the newspapers’ attorney, said depositionsin the case should begin mid-May.Brown said the board’s meetings should be open and that the privatesessions prevent the Advertiser from assuming its role as the eyesand ears of the general public.

“We feel it’s the public’s right to know. We take our role as a watchdogfor the community very seriously,” he said.

Plainsman editor Rachel Davis said the board has begun postingits scheduled meetings on the university’s Web site, which it had not donebefore the suit began. She also said the newspaper has been trying to gainaccess to the board’s executive sessions for several months.