It’s been said sunlight is the best disinfectant.
When you read the word disinfectant these days what probably jumps immediately to mind is hiding in your house chugging Purell and trying to keep from catching the dreaded coronavirus. But before taking that first sentence too literally and running out in the yard naked to catch some rays, just know it was a metaphorical statement.
The quote I was referring to was from famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who opined, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” when talking about the ability of publicity to help root out corruption in our governmental and political institutions. Simply put, those who would cut corners, operate for their personal gain or otherwise rig the system aren’t likely to do so if everyone can see them do it.
Next week is Sunshine Week nationally, which is an annual attempt by the enemies of the people, the press, to call attention to the important role open records and access to public information play in maintaining our fraying political system. And in no place is Sunshine Week more needed than in the Yellowhammer State. Alabama has become a place where public officials run amok, doing as they will, comfortable in the knowledge they can deny almost any records request with zero penalty.
In almost 18 years at this newspaper, I’ve watched each year as records become harder to get and the excuses for withholding them more arbitrary. First, we couldn’t look at simple police reports any longer — something that was a staple of journalism. Now, it’s fights for police body-camera footage after unusual deaths, denied investigative records after fatal accidents, flat out denials of government contracts with vendors that are daily parts of trying to shine a little light on what’s happening.
Some entities are better than others at following the state’s toothless open records law, but those who don’t care to follow the law have little to fear when they break it.
Currently there is a bill in the Legislature by Sen. Cam Ward that would toss out this flaccid, worthless open records law and replace it with one that carries real penalties for those who would deny citizens and the press access to public records. He tried this last year as well, but various governmental groups fought it, and the bill died in committee. Hopefully this year there will be more progress, but there are already signals his colleagues may not be all that interested in open records reform.
Ward’s bill would set time limits on filling requests and outline what agencies may charge for filling requests, and also provide redress if the rules aren’t followed. Right now we are more or less dependent upon the personal ethics of the individual running each public entity.
Regular readers may remember a few years back when I requested a list of the biggest taxpayers in Mobile County from our previous revenue commissioner. She attempted to charge us $1,800 for three pages of paper, simply because it was a number she picked out of the air. She just didn’t like people asking for records and figured slapping a huge price on providing them would discourage the practice. That’s the kind of thing that has become routine in this state.
For the past several months we’ve been suing for body-camera footage from when motorist Jonathan Victor was shot and killed alongside I-10 after a wreck in Baldwin County. Victor died after brandishing a fanny pack. Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack is doing everything he can to keep us from seeing that footage, even though the investigation has been closed. Why? Who knows?
But there are incidents like this across the state where people have been killed in altercations with law enforcement, and family members and the public want more answers. In every one of them, the body-camera footage that was supposedly going to provide transparency for the public is being withheld. In most instances it requires suing the law enforcement agency in order to make law enforcement agencies comply with state law, but even that could change soon.
As Ward’s bill aimed at opening records is being argued in the state senate, Rep. Shane Stringer has offered a bill that would essentially ensure no law enforcement officer in this state would ever again have to worry about what he or she was caught on camera doing becoming public. Stringer’s bill seeks to remove body-camera footage from the public record. It’s hard to look at it as anything but a bill designed to protect officers who did something wrong.
Stringer would not only protect such footage from the prying eyes of citizens and the press, but would remove the ability to appeal any legal rulings regarding body-cam video and also take away the opportunity for those seeking footage to recoup attorney’s fees if they’re required to go to court. In every way possible, Stringer’s bill seeks to block any nosy individual who might want to find out why his son was blown away on the side of the road for holding a fanny pack.
The efforts to withhold information have become so commonplace, it’s the exception rather than the rule when public records are readily handed over. For example, last year we asked for months to see the 22-year contract the state signed with Valor Hospitality to run Gulf State Park, but the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has flatly refused to produce it, claiming it would somehow damage the park’s ability to compete. So yes, a public contract to run a park is secret.
In Baldwin County, some judges have taken to sealing court records for no other reason than one of the litigants doesn’t want people to see them. And the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency last week told us their investigation into a deadly accident on I-10 last year that culminated with a Baldwin County Sheriff’s deputy chasing a car head-on into interstate traffic is not a public record.
Ward and Rep. Chip Brown are even pushing a bill that would severely restrict where drones can fly. It’s an idea pushed by polluting industries who’ve been burned by aerial photos of them dumping into our waterways. I guess they figure it’s easier to have Montgomery politicians turn off the sunlight than it is to clean up their messes.
Maybe over the next week while we’re hiding at home to avoid illness, we should all take some time to write or call our legislators and tell them you do want reliable access to your public records — that you do think it’s important the evil and incompetent press, or even John Q. Public (the Q stands for quarantined) have the ability to easily obtain information, even if it’s information some pol would rather you not see.
The opposite side of Justice Brandeis’ axiom is that democracy dies in darkness. Alabama needs to do a much better job of letting the sun shine in.
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