Even after 28 years on Mobile’s City Council, Reggie Copeland says there are times he is still left waiting for his phone to ring when it comes to getting information.
He, along with other elected officials and media members, have begun to speak out about issues of openness, communication and access to public records that have become commonplace. In his nearly three decades of public service, City Council President Copeland, who is set to retire this year, has worked with three mayors, but says communication now is something that concerns him.
“There is poor communication with several departments,” he said. “It’s understood that some departments will never return your phone calls.”
Copeland said he understands the idea behind Mayor Sam Jones’ policy for councilors to go through him or Chief of Staff Al Stokes to get information. However, it has not made things easier. He points to certain segments of city government where it seems getting information has become much more difficult.
“I’m disappointed I hear the chief (of police) say he couldn’t or wouldn’t give some records, but I’m very disappointed in Urban Development,” he said. “There are some departments that have no problems and others just don’t communicate.”
More and more lately, both media and elected officials are finding it difficult to gain access to documents and information that, according to state and federal law, ought to be readily available.
Recent examples of the shroud of secrecy covering some departments include the Mobile Police Department asking media outlets for input on the department’s public information policy and then refusing to give the policy to reporters; the city of Mobile’s Office of Strategic Initiatives has never responded to repeated requests for information regarding the Police Explorers program, and the police department only did after nearly two months of requests for information on the same Explorers program, and then still withheld vital information.
Both Lagniappe and another media outlet have been denied access to the Police Department’s policy on overtime and outside work, and Lagniappe has been denied access to a list of codes used by dispatchers. Over the past seven years even access to everyday police reports has been denied to working media.
Meanwhile, members of the Mobile City Council have become more vocal about a lack of access to public records and Jones’ requirement they go through his office for information. But flat out refusal isn’t the only obstacle out there for those seeking records.
Open records law
For regular citizens and journalists, all of the information requested is open to the public under the Alabama Open Records Act and/or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As for council members, the Zoghby Act specifically authorizes them to get information directly from department heads.
FOIA and the Alabama Open Records Act essentially do the same thing — force agencies to be transparent as possible. However there are some differences.
The Alabama Open Records Act states any state resident is allowed obtain any information that does not negatively impact the safety of people, buildings, infrastructures, public safety and welfare or any other document that would be detrimental to the public’s best interests.
The state’s open records act in its original form leads for a great deal of leeway, but several civil courts cases, which have been typically filed by a media group, have helped shape what is and is not public record.
Court decisions have made the following things open to the public: accident reports, police blotter, 911 phone calls, arrest reports with redaction of witness identification, complaint reports including the front side of incident/offense reports and a mugshot and a description of each prisoner received into the county jail. Financial records are also open.
Certain public safety information is also available, but only through a case-by-case basis. This includes arrest warrants with supporting affidavits and depositions, after a search warrant or arrest warrant is executed and returned and compilations of criminal histories by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center for people who “need to know.”
FOIA is much more specific, and while it might not seemingly apply to state and local agencies, federal open records requests apply to federal grant applications and the expenditures using the grant money — personnel, fringe benefits, travel, equipment, supplies, contractual, construction and any other expenses.
Kevin Goldberg, a Virginia–based attorney specializing in the First Amendment and FOIA, said federal grant applications and expenditures are always open record except for a very small few.
“There are certain specific grants not open to the public, which are called B3 exemptions,” he said. “Pretty much every grant given through a federal agency is open and under FOIA. It was like a number of years ago when people realized the names of farmers who received subsidies was open to the public. That’s when you found out people like the broadcast reporter Sam Donaldson received about $500,000 in subsidies because he owned a farm. He wasn’t the type of person you would expect to be getting a subsidy. That all started with a FOIA request.”
One of the main differences between the state’s open records act and FOIA is that the federal act gives a timeline of when the information should be given to the entity requesting it.
Agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays. If there is a delay, then the agency must respond and tell the person why within the 20-day period.
Lagniappe’s recent efforts to gather financial information concerning the Police Explorers can serve as an example of how difficult it can be to get information in Mobile.
On Nov. 20, Lagniappe filed a FOIA request for financial documents about the Police Explorers, information that is clearly accessible under state and federal law. The information requested dealt with expenditures for trips taken by the Explorers using federal grant money, making it subject to a FOIA request.
Although the request passed the 20-day mark, the request went unanswered even though there were repeated attempts to gather more information. Mobile Police Department attorney Wanda Rahman explained during a Jan. 9 meeting that the request just reached her desk and she would have the information together by the end of the week, which she did, although some requested records have still not been made available as of press time.
Lagniappe received the information after repeated attempts by multiple reporters. Although requests dated back as far as June to the city and the police department, it wasn’t until Nov. 20 that a FOIA request was filed with the MPD. On Nov. 28 a reporter attempted to follow up, but received no response. Dec. 10 was the first response, which is when Public Information Officer Christopher Levy said it was under review. Two more attempts by a Lagniappe reporter were made to find out a timeline for the information.
On Jan. 3, a reporter attempted to contact Police Chief Micheal Williams via email. Williams did call back and left a message that evening. However, it wasn’t until Jan. 9 that Lagniappe was provided with any indication the request was going to be met. This, of course, happened much later than the preset FOIA timeline.
Issues of the police department’s openness concerning public records became prevalent enough that Williams organized two meetings Jan. 9 between media and MPD to discuss the problems. One meeting was attended by electronic media, the other by print.
At the beginning of the print media meeting, which Lagniappe attended, the policy was provided, but tension still remained between the journalists and some members of the police department. MPD Maj. Phillip Snodgrass, Commander of the Administrative Services Division, said when the police department asked media representatives for advice, they did not mean to change the policy. Instead, he said, they were searching for a way to make receiving information process easier if possible.
“We aren’t asking (the media) to write our policies,” he said.
Snodgrass said, “The state’s public record is our standard,” However, the police policy does differ from the state’s Open Record Act in that the release of mugshots by the police department is up to Police Chief Micheal T. Williams. Under the state’s guidelines, any mugshot in the police database should be available to the public.
In the meeting, Snodgrass, Public Information officers Ashley Rains, Levy, and Rahman met with members of the newsprint media. Reporters and editors from each Mobile newspaper expressed the same frustrations — denial of information that is explicitly open record and/or no response from the department when a request has been made.
Press-Register reporter Robert McClendon, who has written on police off-duty security jobs, said in the meeting that information he has gathered for articles has come from officers, but not in the traditional way.
“I have never received any information I’ve requested through the front door,” he said indicating he had to use sources within the department. “I haven’t been able to get simple things like policies.”
Rahman explained why some requests took so long to respond. She said, for instance, the information request for Police Explorers financial records made in November had not reached her desk until that week.
Bob Noonan, news director for WPMI-TV, said his station had a representative attend the meeting between the department and electronic media. He said historically his station has not had a lot of issues with getting information out of the department, or they have been quickly fixed.
“When we file a FOIA, we’ve been getting them,” he said. “If we’ve been blocked on some things, if I talk with Levy, he gets it settled right away.”
Noonan did say his reporters have had frustration with not being able to have access to full police reports. The department uses a state form in which the narrative of what occurred is on the back, and only the heavily redacted front side of the reports are made available to media.
“In other cities where I’ve been news director there has not been redaction,” he said.
While the meeting between print media and the MPD seemed to reach a point in which the police department would respond to requests and develop a list of requests that could be given out carte blanche, the department’s issues with public information were in the news again the following day. This time it pitted MPD against the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
Lori Myles, public relations officer for MCSO, lobbied for a near real-time crime data map that, after a short delay from a 911 call, would show what crime had been reported and where it allegedly occurred.
The sheriff’s office wants to use dispatch calls as information to report the crimes, but Williams argued the information initially coming into dispatch is often wrong. Therefore, the information shouldn’t be available for public consumption until it is confirmed. This, Myles said, could take weeks or months for detectives to confirm a crime occurred, which would negate the service all together.
“On the website, there will be a disclaimer stating the crimes reported have not been verified,” she said. “The public will understand that the crime reported might not be exactly what was originally reported. This map would be able to arm the public with knowledge.”
The MCSO has decided to move forward with the project despite Williams’ efforts to stop it.
When asked, Myles also said policies and procedures for the MCSO are readily available to the public.
Efforts to have Williams or his department comment for this story were not successful.
Like Copeland, other city council members have frequently voiced displeasure with the administration’s lack of effort in getting them requested information. On many occasions during public meetings most city council members have held over ordinances or resolutions citing the administration not making requested information available on time.
Councilors say they have routinely had questions go unanswered for months or there is just exceedingly poor communication. This is a point upon which the city’s administration disagrees.
“Transparent government is essential to foster trust and dialogue to progress,” said Councilwoman Bess Rich. “Mayor Jones’ administration is often not transparent. For example, the city employees are instructed not to answer any councilmember’s question without the blessing of the administration.
“As a result, I have waited at times weeks to receive simple government documents and information to very direct questions; and at times I have been given no answers or documents when requested.”
The Zoghby Act states the Mobile City Councilors may ask questions, but not directed at any city employee or contractor. However, a council can ask questions if there is legislation — contracts, budgets or ordinances — on the agenda.
Rich said she also doesn’t understand delays in some projects. She mentioned an instance in which she actually gave the city a $7,500 personal check to pay for a traffic light.
“(In November 2011), I gave to the mayor a personal check to place an emergency light at the Hillcrest fire station entrance to warn drivers an emergency run was in place,” she said. “To date, this installation has not been done.”
Information, Rich said, is sometimes more readily available to people who vote with Jones’ desires.
“Rarely have I seen the mayor or his administration in my office communicating their strategic plans or soliciting my district for its issues and needs. District 6 needs are primarily initiated by my office through written communications to the mayor and occasionally I will visit the mayor in his office to discuss city concerns,” she said. “On the other hand, I frequently see the administration reach out to members that vote the ‘party line.’”
One example Rich provided was some members were made aware of an employee $1,000 holiday payment, which totaled $2.4 million, that was approved immediately after the recent sales tax increase. Rich said she had no information that this was being considered beforehand.
Councilman John Williams has also been one of the more publically vocal councilors regarding the difficulty of getting information from the city’s administration. He provided Lagniappe with letters to the mayor and his staff asking questions ranging from leftover funds to concerns addressed by his constituents.
Williams’ questions about available money left over from District 4 projects began years ago. He said he wanted to combine the money to use for various other projects for the district, however, every time he attempts to find out about the funding, he was met with no response from the administration.
“I’ve asked time and time again about left-over money so that it can be put to use,” he said. “I’ve never received a response from the mayor or his staff.”
In the letters provided, Williams asked on April 18, 2012, and Sept. 4, 2012, for the information.
“As I mentioned (on April 18, 2012), neighborhoods would like to have access to these funds for various improvements, and I would like to have a full understanding of what funding is available before making any commitments,” Williams wrote Sept. 4. “As of today, I have not received a response to my original query. Several groups have asked for an update on their requests and your immediate attention to this matter would be appreciated so that I can provide a response to your constituents.”
As of press time, Williams said he has not received a written answer from the administration, but was verbally told by Jones Oct. 30 the money had been moved back into the General Fund without notifying the City Council.
That is something the mayor’s office denied.
“According to the mayor, he did not instruct Councilman Williams on Oct. 30th that inactive or untouched funds were moved into the general fund,” said Barbara Drummond, city spokeswoman. “What he said, ‘That under the Zoghby Act 11-14C-61, which deals with the capital budget funds, projects shall be deemed to have been abandoned if three fiscal years lapse and would go back into the city’s capital budget, not the general fund.’”
Williams said regardless of which fund it goes back into, he has been inquiring about the money for several years now and should have had the opportunity to use the funds.
“I know there is money left over from projects and it might not be a lot — just a couple hundred here and there — but it adds up and if it can go to help some group’s project, then I want to use it,” he said. “I wasn’t given that opportunity though.”
Lagniappe also requested the mayor’s office supply information on left over money from projects, but, as of press time, has not been given any documentation.
Councilwoman Gina Gregory said there has been a change in gathering information when Jones became mayor, but that is his decision.
“There was a time councilors could call up the director or executive director of a department to get information during Mike Dow’s administration. However, Mayor Jones’ policy is that the information should go through him,” she said. “Councilors learned to work with the system, but sometimes information is not a readily available as we would like it.
“Some requests take time to receive because everyone is busy. Then, when you get the information, you may have more questions so there are follow up questions. That is when the process can take weeks,” Gregory said.
Copeland added that when Dow was mayor the communication was very open.
“I’ve been council president for 12 or 13 years and when Dow was mayor and there was an issue he would be in daily contact,” he said. “Jones is not that type of mayor. I do hear from his attorney Larry Wettermark a good bit.”
However, the councilors stressed it is not all bad. Copeland said the creation of 311 is one of the best things the city has done.
“When someone calls about a street light being out, they can call 311 and the response time is much faster,” he said.
Rich also said certain departments are always responsive.
“Fortunately, the mayor and his administration are responsive to many day-to-day resident issues that I bring forward to the administration, which include trash, garbage, street and traffic concerns, public safety and recreation facilities in the district. I greatly appreciate this responsiveness,” she said.
Gregory said she often gets responses from Stokes in the wee hours of the morning.
“Chief of Staff Al Stokes is helpful and they all do the best they can with all the responsibilities of the job,” she said. “There have been times I’ve received information in an email that Al sent very, very early in the morning. I know he’s working that late just trying to get everything done.”
Drummond said the media and councilors are given everything they request.
“I give all the information the city has,” she said. “If it doesn’t exist, then the department heads try to figure it out, which takes time.”
Rich said she would like more transparency for the sake of District 6.
“A mutual respect of the Zoghby Bill and what actions may be taken by the administration versus the council is of utmost importance to respect the balance of government,” she said. “I have a job to do, which is to speak on behalf of the residents in District 6. Citizens cannot be at the table and thus I am their voice.”