Alabama ranks dead last in complying with open records requests.
A study by David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor, ranked Alabama last in the nation in responses to records requests.
Last week, a bill was passed through the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee that would strengthen the current public records law in the state. Senate Bill 165, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would set a response time that agencies would have to respond to records requests. State law does not currently set such a time limit.
The bill will also set reasonable costs to provide requested documents, and would also establish a public access counselor within the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts tasked with deciding on whether to extend time limits for requests and administering an appellate process to handle appeals, when records are denied.
Some organizations charge exorbitant amounts for obtaining records, and the only recourse for a denial is through the court system, which also presents a costly block to access public records that belong to citizens of the state.
The bill is being backed heavily by the Alabama Press Association with Daily Mountain Eagle Publisher James Phillips involved in talks as the bill was prepared.
“We need a stronger open meetings law in our state,” Phillips said. “Being last in this category is a strong contributing factor in why our state has seen so much corruption through the years from elected officials. If they don’t have to be upfront with public information, there’s not accountability.”
Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, told the Alabama Political Reporter that his association is against the bill, and warned the bill would make all communications between public officials and the public open to records requests. Brasfield was also quoted as saying “there’s been no meetings. No real negotiations on the bill.”
Many media outlets have called that claim false, and the DME would also tend to believe that is false as well. While Phillips has not been in meetings with Brasfield, he said he has been made aware of meetings Brasfield had on the subject. This is also an issue that has been brought up to the Legislature for a number of years. Brasfield has been fully aware of it.
The bill being considered will not change what is excluded and what is not excluded from the definition of a public record by the court system.
Others against the bill say it will cause a burden on some organizations due to the volume of requests which will be made. That’s a poor excuse to not get public records to the citizenry or news agencies in an adequate amount of time. We highly doubt there will be a significant rise in the amount of requests due to the fact that they will be mandated to be done faster and cheaper.
Phillips said he is confident the local legislative delegation is in full support of the bill. He has also had conversations with city and county officials who have no issue with the bill.
“If someone has an issue with this bill, it’s probably another reason why we need this bill,” Phillips added.
— James Phillips is publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala.