New bill aims to overhaul current Alabama Open Records Law

Updated: Feb. 20, 2020 at 8:40 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - When it comes to transparency, one Alabama senator says our state is as murky as it gets.

This Tuesday afternoon, Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) plans to do something about it, and he’s not the first to try.

He’s introducing an Open Records Bill that he says would overhaul the state’s antiquated law and give you - the taxpayer - access to information that is rightfully yours.

“I’d rather have more information than less, if I’m a citizen," said Senator Ward. "I guess I’m a skeptical person of government, but I would want more and not less.”

And under the current Alabama Open Records Act, he says that’s just not possible. “The one we have right now is antiquated. It doesn’t work,” he said.

Want to know how many of your dollars your city is spending on equipment to keep you safe?

Or how your local school board is spending your money to give your kids an education?

Right now, if you request that information, which is public, there’s no telling if and when you’ll hear back.

That’s because the law now doesn’t set a hard deadline for the government to respond.

“It doesn’t,” said Senator Ward. “It just says reasonable. And what is reasonable? It’s a subjective interpretation, which I think is wrong.”

Instead of a reasonable amount time, this bill gives an agency 14 days to provide the requested records or deny your request and give you a reason why.

“There’s a lot of resistance. People feel like they’re going to put undue burden on their workload. But I would say the opposite. I would say there’s a lot of protections in there. You’re preventing the frivolous requests. But at the same time, with technology changing so much, I would argue it’s so much easier now to provide more transparency than ever before,” said Senator Ward.

Senate Bill 57 also makes clear how much certain requests could cost you, and how to appeal without legal fees if your request is denied.

Senator Ward says he’s passionate about getting the bill passed, and you should be too.

“You never know when there’s going to be a decision by the state, county, or local government that’s going to impact you. You may not think it does today, but when it does, you don’t want to be on the back end saying, ‘Oh it’s too late now I can’t do anything about it,’” he said.

“It’s maddening,” said Alabama Broadcaster Association president Sharon Tinsley. "It’s certainly behind the laws in our neighboring states. And it’s time to bring it up to date. "

The phones ring constantly at the Alabama Broadcasters Association.

“I hear stories all the time about Freedom of Information Requests under the federal law that are never returned, never responded to," she said. "No email, no phone call, nothing.”

Tinsley said journalists continue for months, and more times than not, they get nothing.

“A cynic would believe that there’s all kinds of things that there shouldn’t be in government to cause people to hold on to public records so tightly. I don’t want to think that,” Tinsley said.

But she said the lack of responses from agencies, or the ridiculously high fees for copies, or just the flat out denials are damaging to our society.

Think about it: do you have time to sit through every city council meeting? Every school board meeting? Do you know where your tax dollars are going when it comes to road projects? How about public safety tools?

That’s where we as journalists step in.

“I don’t necessarily like the term watchdog, but somebody has to be,” said Tinsley. “And journalists do that. Journalists hold public officials accountable. BUTTED TO So it’s critical journalists have access to these public records.”

And now, with the new bill introduced by Senator Ward, that could all change.

Instead of no response, agencies would have 14 days to get back with you either with the information you requested, or a reason for denial.

And appealing a denial would be a more simple process too with a Public Records Counselor handling those appeals.

“If there’s not transparency, if you can’t get your hands on public records, you can’t report the truth about what’s going on, we’re kind of lost as a democracy,” Tinsley said.

The city of Birmingham has spent millions on a crime fighting technology called ShotSpotter.

WBRC FOX6 has been working for years to get a copy of the contract and information on its effectiveness.

Finally, the city denied our requests, but only after our attorneys got involved.

A $2.6 million expense, and no accountability.

It's one of many frustrating examples of why our records law needs to be updated.

You can read more about it here.

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