A bill that would strengthen Alabama’s weak open records law was carried over by members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, at the request of its sponsor.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said his Senate Bill 165 would set a response time that agencies would have to respond to records requests. State law doesn’t currently set such a time limit.
Orr said the bill also sets reasonable costs to provide requested documents. It would also establish a public access counselor within the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts tasked with deciding on whether to extend time limits for requests and administering an appellate process to handle appeals, when records are denied.
Currently, the costs for obtaining records can be exorbitant, and the only recourse for a denial is through the court system, which also presents a costly block to access public records that belong to citizens.
“I know there’s been a lot of conversation about this bill from all sorts of governments. Be they county, be they city, be they municipal, etcetera,” Orr told committee members, adding that he’d have no problems carrying over the bill to give time to work on any proposed amendments.
Orr asked that anyone with concerns about the bill to not “hide in the shadows” and to get those concerns to him so that the bill could be strengthened.
Brad English, government affairs director with the Alabama Press Association, which helped draft the legislation, told members that they are starting to hear from other groups on the bill.
“It would be a whole lot easier to tell you who is for the bill as it exists than who’s against the bill as it exists,” English said. “And we get that.”
English asked that if a group has objections to the bill to “get specific with them, instead of telling us they just don’t like the bill.”
English said the problem with the current statute is that it’s vague, and that there’s much use of the term “reasonable.”
“What’s reasonable? What’s a reasonable turnaround time? So this would not only help the people who are requesting the records, but also set some parameters on people who the custodians of the records and let them know, okay. This is when I’ve got to act on this,” English said.
“I would think we’d agree, our government needs to be transparent, and we need to have some time limitations,” Orr said.
Orr said that unless documents are privileged or bound by confidentiality agreements “we have got to allow the public reasonable access to them in a reasonable time.”
“They’re not an agency’s. They’re the people’s documents,” Orr said, then calling for the bill to be carried over, which was approved by the committee.
Attempts in the past to strengthen Alabama’s open records laws proved unfruitful. A similar bill introduced by former Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, last year ran into opposition from organizations representing cities, counties and schools. That bill, and another introduced the year before, both failed.
Ward, during the 2020 Legislative Session, expressed some similar sentiments as were expressed by Orr on Wednesday, regarding people in opposition hiding behind the scenes.
“What I will not do is negotiate with myself,” Ward said during a public hearing in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in March 2020. “I know how this building works and I will not let them run the clock out on this. Somebody told me that there are sixty groups who oppose this. Only six groups have said anything to me. I want to see the opposition come to the table.”
“I will negotiate,” Ward said, however, he was concerned that the opposition would “continue to hide behind bureaucracy and the rules of the Senate so they don’t have to vote on this.”
Orr’s bill will have to come back to the committee and be approved before moving on to the full Senate for a vote.