This year promises to be a big one in Alabama media if for no other reason than what it could mean to the state’s open meetings law.
A run was taken at upgrading the law last year and the Alabama Press Association and others are going after it again this session.
For those of us in the business of providing the public with information, Alabama’s open records and meetings laws are both pretty pathetic. Certainly both are violated frequently with little to no recourse.
In October of 2014, a circuit judge blocked The Montgomery Advertiser from publishing records obtained from the Public Service Commission about the location of Alabama Gas Corporation’s gas lines. He later lifted the block, but it was as clear a prior restraint as I could imagine. The judge even did it without letting the newspaper be heard on the matter.
And since September 2013, this state has been operating under a Supreme Court ruling that essentially says the Legislature doesn’t have to meet publicly and also severely limited who can sue for redress if they don’t do so.
Meanwhile, Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur is planning to introduce a bill in the upcoming session that would allow citizens to use their cell phone cameras to take photographs of public documents. This comes after a newspaper reporter was barred by the Alabama Department of Corrections from taking a photo of a medical contract — a public record — with his phone. The attitude is the same at the Alabama Department of Safety, which is so belligerent about the way it keeps the records, that Tim McCollum, assistant attorney general with the ADPS was quoted equating taking such a photo “to steal(ing) from the citizens of Alabama.”
The issues surrounding open records and meetings are nothing new when it comes to reporting in Alabama in particular. While it must be said most public bodies do appear to be interested in adhering to open meetings laws and open records as well, those that aren’t typically face little recourse.
This newspaper has fought many battles for public records — in particular having to take the previous city administration to court regarding records for trips taken by the Mobile Police Department’s Explorers program. The records were clearly public, but the city delayed and obfuscated in providing them until Lagniappe was forced to file suit.
Likewise, Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood a few years ago attempted to charge $1,800 for three pages of public information, citing a standard $600 per request policy she had just made up out of thin air. Ultimately we engaged an attorney and the price for the records came down, although there’s not much practicality for a media outlet suing every time it needs records.
In both situations, we were told by the state’s Attorney General’s Office that in Alabama citizens are pretty much left on their own to handle things when a public entity disobeys open records laws. The AG’s not going to come charging in, nor are any other law enforcement agencies.
The same can be said of open meetings.
Hopefully the media and citizens will get behind efforts this year to strengthen Alabama’s open meetings laws and open records too. They need real teeth and real penalties for those who brazenly violate them.
Information is the most important part of having a free society.
How’s weekly been?
It’s a question we’re asked repeatedly — “How’s it been since you went weekly?”
With almost nine months under our belts as a weekly newspaper, I think we can answer, “Pretty good.”
Thanks to a tremendous response from both readers and advertisers from the minute Lagniappe went weekly at the beginning of April last year, we’ve been able to improve the product in most every way. We’ve added staff, improved distribution and hopefully expanded what we’re covering.
Yes, it’s more work to bring the Mobile area a weekly newspaper now, but the support from readers and advertisers is allowing us to get where we need to be to help really keep this community informed. For those who have gotten behind us, we thank you.