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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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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 45263

Reported Deaths: 1007
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson5410152
Montgomery4158103
Mobile4129134
Tuscaloosa232142
Marshall172410
Madison14917
Lee141137
Shelby133423
Morgan11215
Walker97824
Elmore94314
Franklin89814
Baldwin8949
Dallas8919
Etowah75013
DeKalb7375
Chambers64227
Butler63428
Autauga61012
Tallapoosa60569
Russell5650
Houston5074
Unassigned50323
Limestone5010
Lauderdale4966
Lowndes47221
Cullman4594
Pike4375
Colbert4086
St. Clair4022
Escambia3966
Coffee3812
Calhoun3765
Covington3707
Bullock36910
Barbour3532
Talladega3177
Hale31421
Marengo31211
Dale2990
Wilcox2948
Sumter28512
Jackson2842
Clarke2776
Winston2633
Chilton2522
Blount2431
Monroe2392
Pickens2366
Marion23313
Conecuh2107
Randolph2099
Macon1999
Choctaw19512
Bibb1941
Greene1868
Perry1791
Henry1363
Crenshaw1253
Washington1117
Lawrence1100
Cherokee1027
Geneva830
Lamar781
Fayette711
Clay692
Coosa591
Cleburne381
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 52039

Reported Deaths: 652
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby11936201
Davidson11205121
Rutherford304035
Hamilton280435
Sumner163652
Trousdale14985
Williamson134015
Knox12098
Out of TN11987
Wilson96317
Putnam9067
Robertson83911
Sevier8303
Bradley7454
Lake6940
Tipton6495
Unassigned6351
Bledsoe6211
Bedford5705
Montgomery5677
Macon4874
Maury3573
Hardeman3524
Hamblen3434
Fayette3232
Madison3052
Loudon2881
Rhea2850
Dyer2543
McMinn23918
Cheatham2321
Blount2293
Dickson2120
Cumberland1834
Washington1740
Lawrence1646
Lauderdale1513
Anderson1442
Monroe1416
Jefferson1372
Gibson1291
Smith1221
Sullivan1212
Coffee1200
Greene1142
Obion1132
Hardin1097
Cocke940
Haywood932
Marshall921
Franklin883
Wayne880
Hickman800
Warren780
McNairy760
Marion744
White733
DeKalb680
Carter651
Lincoln650
Weakley641
Overton631
Giles621
Hawkins622
Roane620
Grundy611
Unicoi550
Campbell511
Carroll481
Claiborne480
Henderson480
Polk460
Henry450
Johnson440
Grainger410
Sequatchie410
Crockett403
Cannon370
Chester350
Perry340
Meigs320
Humphreys292
Jackson290
Morgan271
Fentress230
Stewart230
Decatur220
Union190
Clay180
Scott170
Houston150
Benton131
Moore130
Van Buren70
Hancock60
Lewis60
Pickett60

 

 

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