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Closed records take toll on taxpayers

"Public officials are not held to any timeline on when they must comply...they have no limit on how much they can charge you."

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 2:19 PM

(Note: This story originally aired in May 2017)
Requesting records is a big part of Adam Keller's job.

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"I wouldn't be requesting it unless it was important information," Keller said.

But the state's open records act makes it difficult for him to do the work of representing teachers through the Alabama Education Association.

"Public officials are not held to any timeline on when they must comply...they have no limit on how much they can charge you," Keller added.

In one case, a school charged him $170 for the four hours it took a lawyer to simply pull the documents.

"The fact that they can charge you anything they want, despite the fact that you as taxpayers have already paid for for them to create, is like double taxation, I think," Miranda Spivack, a veteran Washington Post reporter and visiting professor at Depauw University, said.

Spivack spearheaded a database project with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called State Secrets. The project examined open records laws across the country.

"Alabama is one of the most closed," Spivack said. "Pretty much on every single question we asked, the answer was no, we don't do that. No, we can charge you anything we want. No, there's no time limit," she added.

The lack of a deadline for officials to respond leaves requesters waiting with no end in sight.

"It took 37 days," Huntsville resident Mark Binner said of his request to Huntsville City Schools.

The emails he asked for weren't turned over at all.

"Set your expectation level low, that you're going to get anything, and then you'll be very surprised when you go ahead and get something," Binner said.

With low expectations, the WAAY 31 I-Team requested body camera footage of Councilman Devyn Keith's encounter with Huntsville Police. Keith was mistaken for a robber in his Terry Heights front yard.

The experience led him to host a town hall, calling for new policing initiatives in north Huntsville. At the meeting he told WAAY 31 he was okay with the footage from his encounter going public.

"Have no problem releasing the video camera footage for anybody to see," Keith said.

But the city thought otherwise.

After submitting a request for the video and following up every week for a month, the city attorney would not give us the footage. He claims the video is investigative material for police and part of an ongoing criminal matter.

We also asked Mayor Tommy Battle about the footage.

"I think with this case you have someone who reported a robbery, and the question marks on the robbery and who actually did the robbery, and then you have video of the actual people who were stopped in the robbery," Battle said of the decision to not release it.

So in Huntsville, as is the case with every city in Alabama, officials are able to justify sealing public records by hiding behind the state's vague open records act.

"If they do not have to comply with any timeline, if there's no monetary limit to what they can charge, public officials will use that to their advantage," Keller said of the law.

That means we often have no idea what's going on behind closed doors in Alabama.

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