Effort to make public records more accessible clears first legislative hurdle

Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 5:55 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WBRC) - Wednesday Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would overhaul the state’s antiquated open records law. The Public Records Act aims to improve transparency and access to public records.

The current law gives every citizen the right to inspect public records but stops short of defining what records qualify and a system to obtain those records. Alabama’s law consistently ranks among the worst in the country in terms of accessibility to open records and government transparency.

Wednesday’s vote is a small but monumental step, the last three attempts to move the legislation out of committee failed.

The Alabama Public Records Act would require the state or local governments to respond to open records requests in 14 days. It also creates a position for a Public Access Counselor who can grant extensions to the agencies fulfilling the requests and rule on appeals if a request is denied.

Sharon Tinsley, Executive Director of the Alabama Broadcasters Association has been fighting to improve access to government records for years. While public access is an issue journalists face routinely, Tinsley believes this issue should be a concern for all citizens.

“People need to wake up and realize anyone could be in this boat,” she explained. “If you don’t need those records, someone else you know does.”

The bill faces opposition from state agencies and associations that represent school districts and local governments. Most opposition centers around the proposed deadline to release the records.

“We are not saying we don’t need to work together to make some improvements because we do, but we think this piece of legislation generates significantly more problems than where we are today,” stated Sonny Brasfield, Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Greg Cochran, Executive Director of the Alabama League of Municipalities believes the timeline to prepare the records would be cumbersome for most entities, adding 90 percent of the cities in Alabama have fewer than 5,000 residents and limited support staff at city hall.

“We want to ensure that municipal officials have time to make the necessary redactions on those requests,” Cochran explained. “There’s a lot that goes into redacting personal information or corporate information, making sure that corporate ID numbers are not exposed along with driver’s license and social security numbers. Those things take time and we want to make sure that by having adequate time you’re not rushed through that process.”

Cochran believes 60 days would be a reasonable timeline to supply the documents.

“We receive a lot of requests from these national think tank groups and they’re asking for hundreds and thousands of records,” he noted. “That’s hard to produce, especially when it’s paper documents and you’re having to go back again and redact sensitive information to make sure that you’re not exposing someone’s private information.”

Tinsley believes reduced manpower isn’t a valid reason to object to the proposed changes.

“I would challenge them, why should a record created by the government that’s by the people and for the people not be available to the people?” Tinsley asked. “Can someone please answer that question?”

Adding the framework for a timeline to respond to the requests is key for advocates like Tinsley. The broad language in the current law doesn’t require an agency to respond within a specific timeframe, in fact some entitles don’t respond to the requests at all. Currently there’s no recourse for those who are denied access, which can be costly for both parties.

“The person seeking the documents has no other choice but to go to court,” Brasfield stated.

Cochran noted that cities are closely monitoring the exemptions in this bill. The current law doesn’t define the criteria for a public record, the limited exceptions have been determined by the courts.

“It’s important to us that we truly define the exemptions,” he explained. “The state of Virginia has 73 exemptions. We don’t have that many exemptions, but we need to clarify what is exempt from sharing with these think tanks that are on the national level. What does the public need to see in terms of transparency and accountability?”

Senator Arthur Orr is the sole sponsor of the bill, there’s no companion bill in the House. Heavy amendments or a substitute bill is expected before it’s taken up by the full chamber. WBRC FOX6 is a member of the Alabama Broadcasters Association and supports the passage of SB165.

Requests for federal documents are governed by the Freedom of Information Act.

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