BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An executive fired from Alabama Public Television can go ahead with his lawsuit claiming commissioners violated the state's open meetings law by holding a closed-door session to discuss his job, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Joseph Boohaker issued the decision in a lawsuit filed by Allan Pizzato against the Alabama Educational Television Commission over his dismissal as executive director of the state's public television network.
Pizzato sued after commissioners fired him and another executive in June amid what commission members described as a change in direction for the network.
Some commissioners are pushing for Christian-themed programs on the public network, records and Boohaker's ruling show, and commissioners eliminated a diversity clause from its mission statement. Evidence showed some officials were worried the changes could jeopardize funding, and the network's operating license is coming up for renewal.
An attorney for Pizzato, Augusta Dowd, said the judge's order means lawyers can begin taking sworn testimony from commission members.
"The evidence at the hearing ... clearly shows the firing of our clients was undertaken in order to advance the personal religious and political motives of certain of the commissioners," Dowd said in a statement.
The commission contends it is immune from the claim as a state agency and asked the judge to dismiss Pizzato's lawsuit. An attorney for the panel, Bert Jordan, said much of the case is being thrown out, and members face the potential of only a $12.50 penalty if a court determines they violated the open meetings law.
"In the end, we expect even that claim to be resolved in favor of the commissioners," he said.
More than a half-dozen members of a board linked to the network and another public television official have quit since the firings.
The judge, who held a hearing in the case last week, said testimony showed there was "substantial evidence" that commissioners met improperly without notice during an executive session to discuss the ousters of Pizzato and Pauline Howland, who served as deputy director and finance chief.
Boohaker said lawyers can continue collecting evidence and sworn statements, and he scheduled another hearing for Sept. 4.
Commissioners replaced Pizzato with Don Boomershine, 81, a former Better Business Bureau executive, who will make $135,000 in the interim position, according to the decision. Boomershine plans to step down by the end of August, the order said.