Ten percent. That’s how often an open records request in Alabama is fulfilled, according to a 2020 study of how well each state shares information owned by “the people.”
Alabama was last by a mile with a not-so-astonishing 10 percent. If you’ve ever been a newspaper reporter in the Yellowhammer State, 10 percent might actually seem high.
The study, conducted by University of Arizona journalism professor Dave Cuillier, examined more than 7,000 public records requests from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and found that on average 42 percent of requests were fulfilled. Not great, but still four times better than ’Bama. The high watermark is Idaho, where almost 70 percent of requests (96.5 percent of which have to do with potatoes) are filled.
Recently on Twitter, a journalist frustrated with a state agency simply ignoring her information requests compared our state’s Open Records Act to a steaming pile of manure. I felt the need to correct her though because that comparison would be an insult to steaming piles of manure. Steaming piles of manure at least have some potential usefulness.
The current Alabama Open Records Act is as toothless as my Grandpa Holbert, God rest his soul. There is no time frame required for supplying information, no real punishment for not doing so and a nebulous list of exemptions government officials can claim without having to offer any proof. And there’s also no appeal process when you’re denied. The act also allows them to make up ridiculous charges for having to provide this information. For example, former Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood once tried to charge us $600 a page for a list of the county’s top taxpayers.
Here are some examples of what happens when you attempt to obtain public information in this state.
On Jan. 26, we asked Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) to provide its payroll, overtime and reimbursements for administrators. This is unquestionably public information, but MCPSS is probably the least transparent public organization in Mobile County since Chresal Threadgill — Alabama’s Superintendent of the Year 2020! — took over, so we waited 40 days to get what other school systems supplied in a day or two.
MCPSS’s first move, though, was to send our request to its lawyers to see if there was a way to weasel out of providing the records at all. We essentially had to threaten a lawsuit to get them off the dime, but even then it was done begrudgingly. Last Monday, reporter Scott Johnson had to drive out to MCPSS HQ to collect a massive pile of printed documents, most of which are organized by employee ID rather than alphabetically, making it very hard to locate specific information.
In the journalism world, this is known as a “document dump.” When you have to give someone records, make it as difficult as possible. It’s much easier to search electronic files for specific data — which is how Baldwin County delivered the same information to us in less than two days. It’s 2022 and MCPSS claims its “policy” is to only release hard copies. We asked for a copy of their written policy. It took nearly four business days and a second letter, but they finally admitted they don’t have a written policy.
“Our practice of making the documents available in person complies with the law and administrative guidance associated with open records and we will continue to adhere to that practice,” Bryan Hack, the executive director of Human Resources for MCPSS wrote.
Administrative guidance? Hmmmm?
By the way, MCPSS sends this same information to the State Department of Education each year. (Probably electronically, I’d bet.) We wrote to the Department of Education several weeks ago asking how to get MCPSS’s documentation and the Department of Ed just — wait for it — never responded.
These are the same kinds of issues I’ve been dealing with for nearly a year in reporting on the University of Alabama. They have routinely ignored public records requests, most of the time without acknowledgment other than an automated response. Actual human beings almost never write back or take a call. The UA System Office’s highly paid director of communications will not speak with me or return an email.
It’s been weeks now since I’ve asked for information about several issues — one as simple as an explanation as to why the chancellor’s office spent $13,000 in public money last year buying what appears to be lunches. That’s probably not a huge story, but it’s strange that there would be roughly 400 separate fast food and lunch-type purchases in a year when that’s never happened before. Ever since Chancellor Finis St. John took over, the System Office’s food expenses have been growing, but it exploded last year. Maybe there’s a legitimate reason, but the reluctance to even address it raises suspicions.
Are taxpayers and tuition payers buying lunch for a chancellor who makes $1 million a year and his top administrators who also do pretty well? It’s obviously a public record since the expenditures are on open.ua.edu, but St. John’s office refuses to explain his lust for Chicken Salad Chick and Jersey Mike’s.
This is a guy who had the System Office’s $140,000-a-year head of security washing and vacuuming his personal vehicle during work hours, so anything seems possible.
The food issue might be relatively minor, but there are other expenditures that involve far more money and also deserve some explanation. There are large expenditures listed under construction or “other” that make little sense. But try getting an explanation.
It gets even worse. Last year the ability of the public to see police body camera footage in Alabama was dealt a massive blow when the State Supreme Court not only ruled against Lagniappe’s request to see video from the 2017 shooting of unarmed motorist Jonathan Victor in Baldwin County, but in doing so almost completely restricted the rights of anyone to see body camera footage, period. If you’ve ever operated under the misguided notion these expensive cameras are for transparency, think again.
It may be Sunshine Week, but there ain’t no sunshine in the Yellowhammer State. We need a new open records law if we ever want to see the corruption in Alabama reduced and public officials forced to answer legitimate questions about what they’re doing.
So often when records are refused, or officials won’t talk to us, it turns out they’re trying to hide something. Whether it’s a school system’s finances, blowing money on fast food or blowing an unarmed man away on the side of the road, the public deserves answers.
Let your state reps and senators know you care about this issue. It’s the only possible way they might ever do anything about it.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here