“Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” Alabama public records law.
Alabama’s open records law needs an overhaul. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to even call what we have now a “law.” With no oversight, no penalty for failing to comply and no deadline for complying, Alabama’s open records law is more of a suggestion. Alabama lawmakers have an opportunity to change that though. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is sponsoring a bill that will shine some light into government agencies, and it’s a bill all legislators who claim to value transparency should support.
SB 165 would impose a deadline for complying with open records requests, set reasonable fees for obtaining the records and provide for an appeals process if the request is denied, all things currently lacking. It also updates “every citizen” to “every person,” a badly needed change when you consider the number of international companies doing business in Alabama who also have a vested interest in Alabama’s public records.
Under Alabama’s current open records law, there is no deadline for agencies to respond to a request, although many say they will do so within a “reasonable” amount of time. What is reasonable? Last week, The Times asked Cullman County towns for copies of their budgets. It took Garden City mere minutes to send over an electronic version. Some - like West Point and Holly Pond - have not yet responded. Others took a few days and varying amounts of effort on our part. Which of these is “reasonable?”
We asked the school systems for contract information on school superintendents and salary information. The Cullman County school system responded that they will get that information for us; the city schools has yet to respond. Similarly, we asked the county commission and city of Cullman for information on take-home vehicle policies and information on millage and fuel use. The commission has the policy on its website, and informed The Times they would be providing the other requested information.
The city of Cullman responded with a form for us to fill out to obtain the information, but has not yet indicated when or if the requested information will be forthcoming.
Legally, any of these entities could withhold the information as long as they wanted because there is no deadline by which to comply. The only recourse is to sue, and while government agencies have the advantage of the deep pockets of taxpayer money to fight such legal battles, even if an individual or entity is successful in winning a public records lawsuit, they aren’t entitled to recover attorneys’ fees.
SB 165 would establish a 14-day time period in which the custodians of public records would have to produce the records, provide a way to view them, make them available for searching, deny the request and specify why it’s being denied or explain why more time is needed to comply. Two weeks is certainly a generous amount of time to respond to any open records request, so agencies should not have any heartburn with this provision.
The bill also creates a Public Access Counselor who would hear appeals if someone believes their request was unfairly denied.
Ideally, we’d also like to see government agencies face penalties for failure to comply with the law, but SB 165 certainly provides more accountability than what is currently law. Governments are the custodians of public records, but they are not the owners. Orr’s bill goes a long way towards making sure the rightful owners have access to their documents. We urge the Alabama legislature to pass SB 165.