Around spring of last year, Lagniappe requested a copy of the 22-year service contract between Valor Hospitality and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) to run Gulf State Park Lodge in Gulf Shores. As the state had dumped more than $140 million into the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project since 2018, we thought it made sense to see what they’d be paying the people who were going to run a good portion of the park. So, we asked for the contract.
What we got back was a heavily redacted copy of the contract that offered little information at all about what Valor would be paid, among other things. So, in December of last year, reporter Gabriel Tynes asked ADCNR for a copy of the monthly reports Valor was supposed to file. After much quibbling and back and forth, ADCNR sent us a two-page financial summary they created of the Gulf State Park Lodge. That came at the end of May, roughly six months after the request was made.
This, in a nutshell, is exactly how transparent your state government is on a routine basis. Alabama’s Open Records Act is a joke, and every bureaucrat across the state knows it.
In this particular case, ADNCR claimed this 22-year-long contract contains information that would hurt the park’s competitiveness in the vacation market, and therefore is not of public interest. No one ever offered an explanation as to how exactly that might happen.
This story has a happy ending, though. Last week someone anonymously sent us an unredacted copy of the contract. Apparently, there are people out there who still believe in transparency. Gabe has a story about that in this issue detailing what he found. None of it seems like it would affect the park’s competitiveness. There was some interesting information about how much the company stands to make, and also it appears they’re exempt from state bid laws when it comes to hiring other contractors to work at the park.
Maybe none of that is terribly earth-shaking, but for whatever reason, the folks at ADCNR didn’t want you to see that information. It just seems silly we’ve had to fight with them for more than a year to get that contract, and when we did it came from another source. Why? Probably just because they can.
Another example took place last week then the Alabama Office of Courts (AOC) refused to release the contract information for its deal with On-line Information Services (OLIS), a Mobile-based company owned in part by former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom that runs Alacourt, the state’s digitized legal records database. Why is this contract a secret? Because AOC claims releasing it could endanger “critical infrastructure.”
I suppose that means if you know how many millions Windom and his company are being paid it would somehow knock Alacourt offline?
Apparently, that’s not such a concern in West Virginia, where OLIS is also setting up a database for the state. When we asked for that contract, West Virginia had no problem providing it. Maybe the mountainous terrain prevents public knowledge of the OLIS contract from damaging critical infrastructure in West Virginia. I’m no scientist, but that could be why they’re not worried about releasing public records to the public.
The biggest problem with Alabama’s Open Records Law is it provides no deadlines for when officials must grant requests and offers no solution for appealing refusals. Right now the only way to fight a denied request is to lawyer up. That’s expensive, and few news outlets and even fewer individuals have the financial resources to sue every time a bureaucrat wants to flout the law.
State Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster introduced a new Open Records Law in this year’s legislative session, but it didn’t make it far. I’m sure COVID didn’t help any of that. His law would have set two weeks for responding, and also would have created a way to appeal without spending money on legal fees if you’re denied. Hopefully, he’ll bring it back again in 2021 and those of you who care about government transparency will let your representatives know they need to support it.
The situation isn’t going to get better without the Legislature getting involved.
Consider what we’ve gone through trying to get body-camera footage from the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) after motorist Jonathan Victor was shot on the side of I-10 while holding up a fanny pack. He’d been in an accident, but somehow first responders became concerned he had a weapon. The only video Sheriff Hoss Mack has shown the public starts with deputies back in a defensive position behind their cars, and they began screaming at Victor as he opened the car door. He was shot seconds later.
Logically, I have to wonder if there was a moment when someone said Victor had a weapon. Otherwise, why would they have acted that way? Perhaps body-camera footage would show the chain of events that led to this unarmed man being killed. But when we requested that video, Mack’s office denied it. We went to court, and BCSO claimed we should have asked the Major Crimes Unit for the materials. So, we ended up in the Alabama Supreme Court and are now awaiting their ruling. But even if we are granted a new hearing, we still have to go back to court to convince a Baldwin County judge he should go against Hoss Mack’s wishes and give us the footage.
Some law enforcement officials want to make it even harder to get the body-camera footage we were all told would help make things more transparent. There’s a push to have the Legislature make law enforcement video unavailable to the public, period. So, what’s the point in spending all that money on cameras then? They’ve already made it nearly impossible to see a complete police report, so this must be the next logical step.
More often than not, asking for public records in this state is a hassle at best. People in charge of the records appear to think it isn’t part of the job to make them available, so requests are treated like a massive chore even when they aren’t.
A toothless Open Records Law hurts the public far more than it does nosy journalists. We’ll still have stories to write about the denials, but the public won’t ever really know what’s happening or how your money is being spent.
Encourage your state senators and representatives to vote for a law with deadlines and an appeals process. We can’t just wait around and hope someone with a conscience mails documents to the newspaper.
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