Open records in Alabama: Above the law or hiding behind it?

Above the law, or just hiding behind it? State agencies and government officials in Alabama are sealing public records, despite the fact you're paying for it all

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 2:17 PM

(Note: This story originally aired in May 2017)
Above the law, or just hiding behind it? State agencies and government officials in Alabama are sealing public records, despite the fact you're paying for it all.

t's a situation drawing national attention from media experts, like Dan Bevarly, Executive Director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
"That's an accountability question that really needs to be addressed. I mean why can't you access public information?," he asked.
The American Civil Liberties Union had the same question.
"Alabama should be working towards making itself more open and more transparent, as opposed to making it seem like they still operate behind closed doors," Randall Marshall, the legal director for the ACLU of Alabama, added.
Alabama is regarded as one of the least transparent states in the county by the Center for Public Integrity, the Better Government Association and U.S. News & World Report.
It's because of the state's open records act. Alabama is one of the few states where there's no time deadline for agencies to respond to your request. There's no limit to how much they can charge you, and they don't even need to acknowledge your request. That's right, they can ignore you altogether.
"In most cases, people won't take any legal action, so just by stonewalling, the city will win," Hank Sherrod, a Florence attorney, explained to us back in February. He was talking about body camera footage he requested from the city of Huntsville.
The WAAY 31 I-Team found no matter the agency, the experience is about the same. Request after request rejected or flat out unanswered.
Take, for example, a request WAAY 31 investigators sent in May of 2016. We wanted to know how much it was costing you to pay state troopers overtime. For three months, we checked in every week with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Almost a year later, we still don't have the information.

The timeline even surprised lawmakers.
"I think it depends on the nature of the request...but a year sounds like a bit too long," Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said in response.
"At the end of the day, we are serving the public. Taxpayer dollars pay for the services provided, so we should be very prompt as possible to make sure we get the service," Speaker Mac McCutcheon said.
The issue doesn't just affect journalists. It hurts people like you. People like Mark Binner, a Huntsville resident who wanted to know what public officials were doing at taxpayer expense.
"My thinking was that as a taxpayer, and I'm paying for these services, that I would have more access to information," Binner said.
It hurts people like Adam Keller of the Alabama Education Association, who relies on the open records act to protect teachers.
"I had one institution actually request that I pay $170 for their lawyer's four hours of work in compiling the documents," Keller explained.
Six weeks ago, we took those concerns to the capitol. Your elected officials vowed to take action.
"This interview itself is going to prompt me to do some checking up on our state agencies...and what their procedures and policies are," Speaker McCutcheon told us.
"I wouldn't have known this was an issue unless you told me, so each agency needs to be more responsive, and if it takes a bill to revise law and put parameters in it, then so be it," Rep. Phil Williams, R-Madison, said.
Even the state's new top lawyer had something to say about open records.
"To the extent that there is any inhibition to getting those records, then there is no transparency," Attorney General Steven Marshall added.
But the clock is ticking, and with the legislative session coming to a close, records are still sealed. The window to change that this year is closing.

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