I-Team: Public record request fight

The problems one man faced accessing public records in Colbert County are similar to the issues in Huntsville. WAAY 31 took those concerns to mayor and gubernatorial candidate Tommy Battle and Governor Kay Ivey.

Posted: May 14, 2018 6:10 PM
Updated: May 15, 2018 2:52 PM

After more than a year of questions from WAAY 31, the Governor and Huntsville's Mayor made it clear they don't see a need to change laws on what you can and cannot see.

However, not everyone agrees.

"There's no teeth in it. It's ambiguous, and to enforce it you have to go through the court systems," said Terry Witt. 

Witt is planning on going through the court system, and we're going to follow every step of his journey.

"I was chased out of the courthouse trying to get them. If that happens on a basis, people aren't going to try to request public records," said Terry Witt, who lives in Tuscumbia.

He's talking about public records such as police reports, personnel files and body camera videos.

Terry Witt learned how hard it can be when he requested body camera video. Witt wanted video from a Colbert County Sheriff's deputy after the two got into an altercation at the court house.

"He made the determination that body cams don't fall under public records act," he said.

Witt believes the county illegally rejected his open records request, so he hired an attorney and plans on suing.

The problems Witt faced accessing public records in Colbert County are similar to the issues in Huntsville. WAAY 31 took those concerns to mayor and gubernatorial candidate Tommy Battle.

We questioned Battle about state laws and how they're followed. We also questioned Governor Kay Ivey about these requests and the answers we got from both candidates were very different.

"Public records are public records. The people of Alabama are entitled to viewing public records," Ivey said.

WAAY 31 wanted to know why Huntsville rejected our request to view the personnel file of a Huntsville police officer charged with DUI in March.

"It's clearly the law. The law says employee files are employee files. And employee files are not to be released without prior consent or the consent of their supervisors," said Battle.

But it's not so clear. The law states, quote, "Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute."

There is no statute.

In an email to WAAY 31, Assistant City Attorney Eddie Blair cites a State Supreme Court opinion that exempts "sensitive personnel records." Blair called the file of an officer charged with DUI "sensitive personnel materials and their release is not in the best interests of the public."

I looked up the court case Blair cited. The judges also said, "Courts must balance the interest of the citizens in knowing what their public officers are doing in the discharge of public duties, and "It is clear from the wording of § 36-12-40 that the legislature intended that the statute be liberally construed."

"If there's an abuse of the law then we need to look at it. But at this point I think we have been open on all the records," Battle said.
Over the past year, WAAY 31 asked state lawmakers about changing open record laws. They all told us it sounded like a good idea.
No bill was ever introduced, and Governor Ivey doesn't seem concerned about it.

"If somebody is having trouble getting information from their government, there is a process you can got through in the courts," she said.

That's right, you need to go to court. It's the only option available in Alabama. There's no oversight by any board or commission.
That's something that frustrated Witt.

"All these agencies know that. They know if we turn it down you're only alternative is to go to the court systems which most people are just going to forget about it," he said.

Witt knows it's hard to change.

"They're the ones that create the laws and state how they're enforced and at the same time they're the ones that they would be used against," he said.

With the primary for Governor on June 5, Witt says it's time to demand government transparency.

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