Alabama public records law doesn’t benefit the public

Alabama public records law doesn’t benefit the public
When it comes to transparency and accountability, Alabama ranks as one of the worst states in the country. (Source: Pixabay)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - If you wanted to know what the City of Birmingham spends on the gunshot detection system ShotSpotter in a given year, you should be able to file an open records request to receive that info. Or if you wanted to know the details of contractual agreement between the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and its PR agency, you should be able to file a records request to get it. Or how about inspection and maintenance records for UAB’s buses? You should be able to get those, too, under Alabama’s Open Records Act.

So why are these records requests from WBRC to these agencies mostly unanswered? Do these agencies have something to hide? Maybe.

Are they lacking the resources to gather the records? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

I can only assume that our requests are ignored or denied because our only recourse is to sue.

Most people - and media outlets - either can’t afford to or don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to do so. And we shouldn’t have to because the records are supposed to be PUBLIC.

WBRC requested court records on Carlos Chaverst Jr. from Hoover Municipal Court on May 30th of this year. Chaverst Jr., emerged as a vocal leader of the protests in the aftermath of E.J. Bradford Jr.’s shooting death by a Hoover Police Officer in November of 2018. He faces several charges related to the protests. We wanted to find out the specifics of those charges and his court dates. So, we filed a request for those records on May 30, 2019.

Nearly two weeks went by with no response, so I sent a follow up email and learned that our request had been forwarded to the city attorney’s office. I was told that’s standard procedure for a pending case. (If it were appropriate to add emojis to news stories, the eye roll one would be inserted here.)

On June 13th and again on June 20th, I sent follow up emails asking for an update. I received an email from the city attorney’s office that said she had been out of town, but someone would be in touch the following week.

We didn’t hear from them the following week. (Sigh.) So our attorney sent a letter following up on three records requests that were pending with the City of Hoover. Counsel for the city finally got back with us on July 3rd and sent some of the documents we requested. The others were available for pick up on July 5th.

Great, right? We got what we wanted. Yes. But it took weeks in one case and months in the other. And it took a letter from one of our attorneys for us to access public documents. Most people don’t have lawyers on speed dial. And they can’t afford to pay them.

It may seem like I’m picking on Hoover. I’m not. I love Hoover. My family and I live there. My child goes to school there. It is a wonderful city with wonderful leaders. There are countless other municipalities and agencies that are just as problematic.

Here’s what you can’t lose sight of: Alabama’s open records law does not benefit the public.

Not when a sign fell on a child at the Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport and killed him, and the airport authority told WBRC and other media outlets that they could not turn over blueprints and plans because those records belonged to the contractor- even though the contract said the records belonged to the airport authority.

Not when Governor Bentley told WBRC in 2015 that the accusations of him misusing state funds were false, but maintained his divorce records should be sealed.

And certainly not when then WBRC Anchor/Reporter Beth Shelburne broke the story about the conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2012, countless records requests were ignored and denied. It wasn’t until federal reports were made available through lawsuits that we had a clear picture of what was happening in our state’s prisons.

And not when former WBRC Reporter/Anchor Britton Lynn started investigating football helmet safety at high schools in the state. Countless schools denied her requests for records on the re-conditioning of their helmets.

I could go on and on with examples of why this is so very important. I’ll get back to that a little later in this rant. For now, let’s talk about Alabama’s ranking when it comes to transparency and accountability. We are among the worst in the country. Here are a few of those studies:

  • A 2008 study, the BGA - Alper Integrity Index, conducted by the Better Government Association and sponsored by Alper Services, ranked Alabama #48 in the nation with an overall percentage of 34.90% in regards to transparency.
  • A 2007 study, Graded state responsiveness to FOI requests, conducted by BGA and the NFOIC, gave Alabama 0 points out of a possible 100, a letter grade of "F" and a ranking of 49 out of the 50 states.
  • A 2002 study, Freedom of Information in the USA, conducted by IRE and BGA, ranked Alabama’s law as the worst in the country, giving it a letter grade of “F.”

Earlier this year, state Sen. Cam Ward introduced a bill that would have created a state official who could decide these matters without anybody having to pay lawyers first. The bill would have also set timetables for responses to open records requests, too.

It didn’t make it out of committee.

I’m told lobbyists for local municipalities rallied in opposition, saying it was overly burdensome. Overly burdensome to make public records available to the public. Somehow, other states are able to carry the burden - but not Alabama.

Thankfully, the bill will carry over. Hopefully, it will pass because the public has a right to know how its government operates, how its elected representatives vote, how its tax dollars are spent. Government that is not transparent is prone to influence and corruption. We’ve had enough of that in Alabama.

This is an editorial written by WBRC News Director, Shannon Isbell.

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