More than 100 days after Lagniappe officially requested drawings or blueprints related to the $4.3 million renovation of the “Super House” conceived by the University of Alabama System Office, the System’s top attorney now says the public records request has been denied due to security concerns.
System General Counsel and Vice Chancellor Sid Trant finally provided a reason the drawings have been withheld, but only after being informed Lagniappe has obtained them from a source who provided them on the condition of anonymity. Trant asked that Lagniappe not publish the drawings, which reveal four large bedroom suites that have been created on the second floor of the former Bryce Superintendent’s House, which is to serve for hosting events and housing “dignitaries” overnight.
“As to the detailed plans for the Superintendent’s House, the University’s position is that it is a security risk to release detailed drawings of a building that may accommodate public officials or figures for which safety and security may present particular concern. The plain language of the Open Records Act provides an exception to disclosure for ‘records concerning security plans . . . and any other records relating to, or having an impact upon, the security or safety of persons, structures, facilities, or other infrastructures . . . .’ Your claim to have received such plans does not change the fact that the University will not release detailed plans for a building that may compromise that building’s security,” Trant wrote. “Whoever supplied those drawings to you seems to have no regard for our safety and security concerns, but I hope and trust that you will not jeopardize our safety and security by making those publicly available.”
Lagniappe has decided to publish the drawings because Trant offered no specific or credible safety concerns the drawings might create and has failed to mention such concerns for more than three months. The drawings can be seen at the bottom of this story.
Also, maps or drawings of public buildings that would arguably have far greater security concerns than the chancellor’s new events house are easily found online and have been made public. For instance, a multitude of layout maps of the White House — including the area where the U.S. President lives — can be found online. And there is a detailed virtual tour of the Alabama Governor’s Mansion hosted by Gov. Kay Ivey available as well. Drawings of federal courthouses are also publicly available.
In fact, many detailed schematic drawings of the University of Alabama’s own President’s Mansion are also housed by the Library of Congress and easily found online here.
The Superintendent’s House drawings are dated March 23, 2021 and created by the UA Project Design Team. They show four bedroom suites, complete with large bathrooms and closets, were created on the second floor. There is also a laundry room and a “weekend pantry.” It also appears an elevator may have been added or refurbished on the outside of the building, as well as a lift going to the upstairs pantry.
On the first floor, there is an entry parlor, a formal parlor and a dining and conference room, as well as a large catering kitchen. A large patio was also created for outdoor entertainment. The drawings mention no special fencing, gating, safe room or other security measures being included in the renovation.
Trant offered no specific security concerns or any documents indicative of safety fears. The System Office has steadfastly refused to reveal even one of the “special events” the house is slated to host, or to explain the circumstances in which four suites might be needed in order to host what were referred to as “dignitaries” in documents presented early last year by Chancellor Finis St. John’s office to the Board of Trustees.
Insiders with knowledge of how the Superintendent’s House was selected by the Chancellor’s office in early 2021 to be used for special events have said St. John’s intent has been to use the building to host large parties on football Saturdays, something his office has neither confirmed nor denied. The building was part of the University of Alabama’s purchase of the former Bryce Hospital campus in 2010. A UA press article in 2015 claimed it would become home to graduate studies for the school’s School of Arts & Sciences, but St. John’s Office claims there was never any official designation for what would become of the Superintendent’s House until February of 2021 when the Board of Trustees approved plans for its renovation.
On Jan. 4 of last year, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Dana Keith submitted a resolution to the Board of Trustees that would convert the Superintendent’s House into a “special events space for the University of Alabama System.” The resolution was approved at a Feb. 5, 2021 board meeting, granting a budget of $4,378,621.
The resolution offered few specifics in explaining how St. John came to choose the Superintendent’s House for this purpose.
“After consultation with officials at the University of Alabama, the chancellor and University of Alabama System staff have identified the Superintendent’s House as an appropriate location for special event space for the University of Alabama System Office and lodging for official guests of the University of Alabama System,” the resolution read.
In identifying need, St. John’s office stated, “The University of Alabama System Office currently does not have space designated for special event use. Overnight accommodations for dignitaries and other visitors are currently not available on campus.”
In the past decade, UA appears to have converted a few buildings for overnight usage by members of the Board of Trustees and now “dignitaries.” Two of the University-owned Pinehurst mansions were renovated to make permanent suites for members of the Board, according to multiple present and former employees. One of the Pinehurst mansions was previously used as a residence for the UA chancellor, but former Chancellor Bob Witt chose not to live there and renovations began. Currently, St. John receives a $75,000-per-year housing stipend and lives in a private home off campus.
On football Saturdays, trustees begin their day’s festivities at the Pinehurst mansions, according to current and former employees familiar with the rituals, as well as those who have provided police escorts for their procession to the President’s Mansion. Trustees and the chancellor also frequent the large party at the president’s home before heading to the party in his box at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The question of why the System would need to spend $4.3 million creating yet another place to have football parties is one that hasn’t been addressed.
In his response, Trant also made clear the office’s refusal to provide details about what events will be hosted at the House are based upon the fact that there is no written information regarding those plans.
“The text of the Open Records Act, Ala. Code 36-12-40, provides for the production of “… a copy of any public writing. . . .” The Attorney General has acknowledged that ‘public writing’ is not specifically defined in the Code, but has analogized to the term ‘public record’ contained in Ala. Code 41-13-1, which is defined as: ‘All written, typed or printed books, papers, letters, documents and maps made or received in pursuance of law by the public officers of this state . . .and other subdivisions of government in the transactions of public business. . . .’ Ala. Op. Atty. Gen. No. 2007-067,” Trant wrote. “That opinion, and relevant opinions of the Alabama Supreme Court interpreting the Open Records Act, are founded on the premise that information must have actually been recorded in a writing, document or record of some sort to be covered by the Open Records Act. The Open Records Act is just what it says, in common parlance and in the text of the statute: a requirement to provide official ‘writings.’ It does not compel the state or a state instrumentality to create a record to answer a request, nor answer interrogatories seeking general information where responsive documents subject to the Open Records Act do not exist.”
Lagniappe asked if it was common for the System Office to embark upon an expense of more than $4.3 million without a written study of the need for such a facility and without presenting in writing specific plans for its usage to the Board that would approve the project. Trant did not respond to that question prior to publication of this article.
Despite taking more than 100 days to respond to the Sept. 23 request, Trant said the Chancellor’s office has and will continue to reply in a “timely fashion” to public records requests from Lagniappe. The state’s Open Records Act does not prescribe a specific time frame in which public entities should provide public records.Super House Drawings 1
Super House Drawings 2
Super House Drawgings 3
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