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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.

"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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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 54768

Reported Deaths: 1096
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson7012170
Mobile5061140
Montgomery4599112
Tuscaloosa274353
Madison25359
Marshall205012
Shelby176425
Lee164737
Morgan13975
Baldwin134111
Walker111332
Elmore107622
Etowah106914
Dallas10189
DeKalb10017
Franklin95016
Unassigned77728
Autauga71515
Russell7130
Chambers68530
Cullman6686
Limestone6653
Butler65529
Houston6417
Tallapoosa63069
Lauderdale6006
St. Clair5983
Calhoun5545
Colbert5286
Escambia5128
Lowndes49222
Pike4805
Jackson4422
Coffee4364
Covington43512
Talladega4177
Dale4061
Barbour4022
Bullock37810
Hale36323
Marengo36111
Chilton3452
Blount3311
Clarke3236
Wilcox3158
Marion30914
Winston3095
Sumter29713
Pickens2786
Randolph2759
Monroe2683
Perry2552
Conecuh2388
Bibb2271
Macon2229
Choctaw22012
Greene2009
Henry1573
Washington1529
Lawrence1460
Crenshaw1343
Cherokee1317
Geneva1010
Fayette901
Clay892
Lamar891
Coosa671
Cleburne481
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 65274

Reported Deaths: 749
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby14163224
Davidson13976146
Rutherford375539
Hamilton353538
Sumner204056
Williamson193916
Knox171710
Out of TN166012
Trousdale15105
Wilson126117
Putnam10817
Unassigned10772
Bradley10104
Robertson97313
Sevier9244
Montgomery8247
Tipton7177
Lake6960
Macon6467
Bledsoe6311
Bedford6309
Hamblen5084
Maury4993
Hardeman4444
Madison3842
Fayette3805
Rhea3500
Blount3483
Loudon3312
Dyer3023
McMinn29319
Cheatham2873
Dickson2820
Washington2760
Lawrence2506
Sullivan2485
Cumberland2294
Anderson2112
Gibson2031
Jefferson1931
Lauderdale1934
Smith1852
Warren1590
Greene1572
Monroe1566
Coffee1520
Cocke1460
Haywood1413
Hardin1407
Obion1273
Marshall1232
Wayne1230
Franklin1223
Giles1221
McNairy1171
Hickman1120
Carter1082
Marion1014
DeKalb990
Hawkins952
Lincoln950
White933
Roane880
Henderson830
Chester810
Overton791
Weakley791
Claiborne760
Campbell721
Grundy672
Crockett653
Unicoi600
Grainger590
Cannon580
Carroll571
Polk570
Henry540
Sequatchie520
Jackson500
Johnson490
Humphreys482
Perry430
Meigs400
Decatur350
Morgan341
Fentress290
Scott290
Union280
Stewart270
Clay230
Houston230
Moore230
Benton161
Hancock120
Lewis120
Van Buren90
Pickett80

 

 

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