The Mobile County Commission has unanimously approved a resolution opposing a sweeping overhaul to the laws that dictate how public information is requested and obtained in Alabama.
Last Thursday, Commissioners Jerry Carl and Merciera Ludgood and Commission President Connie Hudson put pen to paper in objection to Senate Bill 237 — a companion to a bill State Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, has been working to introduce in the House during the regular session.
According to its resolution, Mobile County “strongly supports transparency and accountability in government” and is “agreeable to developing revisions to Alabama’s open records law.” However, officials believe — as written — the legislation proposed by Pringle and Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would “create a host of administrative challenges for county governments.”
“This is a bill that was drafted without any input from local governments and there are always unintended consequences when you don’t get a full picture of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Hudson told Lagniappe. “While the law can be revised, I think it needs to be revised with some of this in mind, and I do think that’s where this is headed.”
As Lagniappe reported, the bill as it was drafted would require all public entities to adopt rules for compliance with Alabama’s existing open records laws and to select a custodian to maintain and compile public records as well as process requests to produce those records.
It would also set a statewide baseline for the fees agencies charge the public in order to produce electronic records, establish deadlines for custodians to comply with requests and create financial penalties for custodians that fail to satisfy requests or don’t do so in a timely manner.
Hudson also said that SB 327 would require public agencies to “research and compile” information even when it hasn’t been requested by the media or a member of the public. In addition, she said it would allow people from out of state to file requests remotely.
“Right now, if you ask for a bill, we provide the bill, but we don’t go do additional research and compile information. That’s what this would require,” she added. “It takes a lot of time to divert somebody from their regular responsibilities to procure some of this information.”
Hudson says the county believes in transparency and has a dedicated public affairs staff to handle requests as they come in.
The requirements of the legislation as it was originally proposed would likely be even harder for smaller municipalities, agencies and public bodies to comply with, according to Hudson.
Though he didn’t mention the county’s concerns, Pringle said he was already working with other lawmakers to redraft the House version of the proposed legislation as recently as last week. As of April 22, he had yet to formally introduce any version of the bill in the House, though.
According to Hudson, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA) is also involved in ongoing efforts to revisit the state’s current open records laws.
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