Last week was “Sunshine Week,” which isn’t about skin cancer screenings or getting outdoors. The “sunshine” we’re talking about here is the light of scrutiny we in the media try to shine upon government entities, with varying degrees of success.
A big determiner of that success is the ability to access, analyze and relate to you, dear reader, public records. While the concept of “open records” is a simple one, the practical work of obtaining access to them is anything but. And, as with most things in this great land of ours, success tends to vary depending upon where you are, AND, as with most things in this great land of ours, when you’re in Alabama, your chances of success are the worst in the country.
I know I tend to run my mouth a lot about public records access in our state, or the lack thereof. It makes sense, as the lifeblood of quality journalism is access to public records that offer an objective look at how, why or for how much certain things are happening. And if you’ve ever read one of my diatribes on the subject or heard me spouting off about it on the radio, you probably have gotten the idea I hold Alabama’s adherence to open records laws in particularly low esteem.
This past Friday, the Alabama Press Association sent out an email encouraging newspaper publishers and editors to consider running a couple of columns from al.com about current efforts to pass new Open Records legislation in Montgomery. But since Lagniappe has actually done quite a bit over the past several years to fight for public records, I feel certain we can handle this without help from the Birmingham boys.
SB 165, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, is expected to be voted on by the the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, and it would primarily adopt some of the things that work in other states, such as capping fees, setting deadlines for how long agencies have to get requests filled and establishing an ombudsman for determining what is and isn’t available.
It all makes perfect sense, which is why I give it almost no chance of actually passing. As I’ve explained over and over, Alabama is the absolute worst when it comes to public records requests. And actually, there’s proof.
A University of Arizona study from 2019 called “Bigger Stick, Better Compliance: Testing Strength of Public Records Statutes on Agency Transparency in the United States” ranked our 50 states in terms of how often they comply with records requests and, you guessed it, Alabama finished (as we so often do) dead last. But it was dead last with a flourish — kind of like finishing a 100-yard dash an hour after everyone else. Alabama’s compliance rate in the study was 10 percent. TEN percent! That meant 90 percent of the requests made weren’t fulfilled.
Idaho and Washington led the way with 67 percent compliance, although Idaho’s average number of days to fulfill the request was 15 while Washington’s was a whopping 82. Don’t worry, we were right at the bottom in regards to the slothfulness of actually providing those precious few records, taking 76 days on average to make them available.
If there is one positive Alabama can take away from the study, it’s that the average cost for the 10 percent of requests filled is only $6. Nevada’s average is $412, so at least we wouldn’t have to pay a whole lot if the state actually fulfilled records requests.
“I know there’s a 90 percent chance I won’t get these records I requested, but if I do, at least they’ll be cheap!” should be emblazoned on a T-shirt or put on a coffee mug.
If you’ve been reading your Lagniappe faithfully, you’re aware of Lagniappe’s fights to make public records public. A couple of situations that immediately jump to mind were efforts to get contracts between the state and the hospitality group running the Lodge at Gulf States Park, as well as another contract between the Alabama Office of Courts and the company that runs Alacourt. In both instances, state agencies flatly refused to let us see the whole contracts and how your tax dollars are being spent.
In the case of the Lodge, the state tried to claim letting us report on the contract would somehow harm the competitiveness of this state-owned resort. The Office of Courts claimed revealing the contract might actually endanger the very infrastructure of the electronic court filing system!!!
In both cases, these agencies blocked release of records that in most other states would have been no problem getting. In fact, North Carolina did quickly supply us with their contracts with the same company that runs Alacourt. Apparently, N.C.’s system wasn’t in nearly the kind of jeopardy it is in Alabama.
Luckily, in these instances, Lagniappe was able to obtain the records we sought through other methods — as evidence in a civil lawsuit against Online Services Inc. (Alacourt) and from an anonymous source in the case of the Lodge.
Of course, we also had to take the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court last summer to ask to see body camera footage from the shooting of Jonathan Victor along I-10 in 2017. That’s camera footage from a shooting in which the officer was cleared, the grand jury chose not to indict and the case was closed by the investigating body. Still, the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office refused to release the footage. In that case as well, we gained access to the footage and other related documents because they became evidence in a civil case.
In the end, the truth got out, but we can’t count on there always being a side road for getting documents the state refuses to release. And there are other ways of making records hard to get.
Several years ago, the then-Mobile County Revenue Commissioner tried to charge us $1,800 for a list of the entities paying the most tax in the county. It was three pages worth of information, but the commissioner had just decided she didn’t want to give it to us. So we had to pay for a lawyer because she was allowed to arbitrarily make up an exorbitant fee.
These are not just our records — they’re your records as well. If you care about government accountability and being able to see how things are done by those you’ve elected, Alabama needs a better Open Records law. Take five minutes and email your representatives on Goat Hill and let them know you care about this issue. Let the sunshine in.
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