Photo | Lagniappe
Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, wants the government to be more accountable to the people by making it easier to obtain public records and harder for officials and agencies to withhold them.
While it hasn’t been introduced, Pringle has been working on a bill with Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, that would clarify the process for requesting public records from any state, county or municipal entity that uses taxpayer money.
If passed, the bill could significantly strengthen access to public records, which the bill defines as “any record received or made by a governmental official or employee” including “documents, papers, email, letters, maps, books, tapes, images, videos, audio recordings” and more.
“This is about transparency in government, and there’s nothing within the state or local government that is classified,” Pringle told Lagniappe. “We just believe firmly that all government records should be open to the people because the people pay for them.”
The Alabama Open Records Act already exists, but Pringle’s proposed legislation would require all public entities to adopt rules for compliance with the law and to select a custodian to maintain public records and process requests to produce them. Custodians would also be required to grant, deny or request more time to fill a records request within five business days.
The bill would also establish a baseline for prices agencies charge for producing records for the public. Those start at 10 cents per page for copies of non-electronic records, 50 cents for color copies and no more than 1 cent per page for records in an electronic format.
Currently, the law only requires the fees associated with records requests and the time agencies have to reply to one be “reasonable,” which has been left up to interpretation and caused charges and wait times to vary from agency to agency. Pringle said that’s created a hardship on some seeking information on how their tax dollars are being spent.
“What you run into is agencies overcharging for the production of records, withholding records or not turning them over in a timely fashion, and that’s just wrong,” Pringle added. “We need to make sure that the people of Alabama have access to public information.”
One of the biggest changes proposed in Pringle’s bill is the creation of a public access counselor within the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts. That counselor would be able to hear appeals of request denials and issue opinions on the state’s Open Records Act.
The bill would also establish a process for requesters to file an additional appeal in Circuit Court and creates penalties for record custodians who fail to comply with the law. Those fines range from $1,500 to $3,500 for violations of the open records law “without reasonable justification” and also include a $75-per-day charge for records that aren’t produced in a timely manner.
Pringle did say he’s working with lawmakers on carving out exemptions for records related to public industrial development projects. Those records often pertain to competitive development projects between municipalities and can impact negotiations with developers if made public.
“You do have to keep that on the down-low, but once everything is done that should all be put on the table too,” Pringle said. “There are a couple of tweaks going on behind the scenes because of those concerns with industrial development, but I think you’re going to see something soon.”
Speaking to Lagniappe, Pringle said he’s seen some pushback in Montgomery, but is committed to moving the legislation forward. In the same vein, he’s already introduced a bill that, if passed, would require professional licensing boards in Alabama to disclose all of their finances online.
That would allow the public to easily see how money is being spent by boards the state designates to issue licenses to doctors, pharmacists, electricians, Realtors and other professionals. Pringle said those entities’ finances should be publicly accessible because license fees are essentially the same as “a tax levied by the state of Alabama.”
“The mindset has set in for some that it’s their money and they should be able to spend it the way they want, but it’s not,” he said. “There’s some very upset people in Montgomery right now.”
That bill, HB 252, is scheduled for a hearing this week before the House Committee on Fiscal Responsibility. While an early draft of Pringle’s open records legislation has been released, the bill has yet to be officially introduced in the House or Senate.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).