By Kyle Whitmire email@example.com
This is an opinion column.
Alabama doesn’t work like other states on a lot of things, but especially when it comes to public records.
Last year, my colleague Amy Yurkanin had a question: How much was the University of Alabama at Birmingham paying a private company to recruit students from foreign countries?
Her question led to a public information request to the university. She would like to see the contract, she said.
Only UAB didn’t want to show it to her. At least not all of it.
After Yurkanin pushed some more, she got back a redacted version with those big black boxes over the type, like something you’d get from the CIA. The most important information — how much a public institution was paying a private company — was still secret.
A lot of times, this would be the dead end. Alabama law says all the state’s citizens are entitled to inspect public records and take copies upon request, but the law is weak. It doesn’t set deadlines for when state and local governments must respond. It allows government agencies to charge ridiculously high and often prohibitively expensive fees for copies and “research” costs. And it doesn’t penalize public officials who flatly refuse to obey the law.
Often, the only recourse is to sue, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, as it did one company in 2019. When Central Alabama Radiation Oncology fought a public board all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court to get, among other documents, minutes of its meetings, it won the fight and got the docs — after spending $70,000 in legal fees.
Last year, a national ranking of states by open records compliance put Alabama where it often finds itself — dead last.
Not only are some public officials too lazy to look for records, but they’ll use that as an excuse.
When environmental activist Daniel Tait asked the city of Troy for records regarding a local gas utility, the city told him Alabama law didn’t require them to look for the records he requested. That’s right. A city attorney argued that state law doesn’t actually require public officials to look for records.
It’s easy for government officials here to say no. The law be damned.
But with Yurkanin’s request to UAB, she lucked into something different. She didn’t have Alabama law on her side, but she did have Florida law on her side.
As it turned out, the University of South Florida had contracted with the same company to do the same kind of work, so Yurkanin filed a public information request in the Sunshine State. With it, she drew an interesting side-by-side comparison of Florida’s law and Alabama’s.
The Florida request gave her the documents she asked for in six days.
This is how an open records law works in a state where the open records law works. No fussing by bureaucrats. No broad redactions that make the whole task pointless. Just a request and a prompt reply.
This is how the law should work in Alabama.
(After I wrote about Amy’s accidental compare-and-contrast, UAB relented and gave her the unredacted records. Sometimes public embarrassment works, too.)
For the last two years, state Sen. Cam Ward has proposed a top-to-bottom rewrite of Alabama’s open records law, and both years his bill died in committee. Lobbyists from county commissions, municipalities and school boards have fought the bill, arguing that a law largely copied and pasted from other states would be too burdensome for Alabama.
Last year, Ward left the Senate to become director of pardons of paroles, because in Alabama it’s easier to give prisoners their freedom than it is to free public records. When he left, I worried he’d taken any hope of a real open records law with him.
But as it turns out, the bill isn’t dead.
State Sen. Arthur Orr has now taken up the cause where Ward left off.
Orr, a Republican from Decatur, is no slouch in the Alabama Senate hierarchy. As chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee, he wields substantial influence in the Legislature. Before taking on this crusade, Orr sponsored legislation to put the state checkbooks online for all to see. Orr said he hears a lot of the same bellyaching then as now, but not since that law passed.
“No one has complained that it’s too expensive or to hard,” he said.
He said he took on this cause because it’s the right thing to do.
The bill would do the simple things that work in other states. It sets deadlines and caps fees. But most importantly it would create an affordable appeals process through a state public records ombudsman.
“I fear that some organizations don’t want the bill to pass at all,” Orr said when I spoke with him this week. “They like the way things work today. They don’t want to meet in the middle.”
Orr said that won’t deter him and he intends to bring the bill back up in committee on Wednesday.
Public records are not a media privilege any more than they are the private property of public officials. Public records belong to you. And you, your neighbor, you nosy uncle — anybody — should be able to see them. Because public records are the best — sometimes, the only — tool the public has to hold government accountable.
And a public official’s attitude on this subject is telling.
So, good for Orr.
But it’s time for the rest of the Alabama Legislature to get with the program and return to the public what’s rightfully ours.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.
Correction: A previous version of this column said Orr chairs the Senate General Fund Committee. He now chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.