The Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday moved along a bill that would strengthen Alabama’s public records law, but members and others expressed concern it could overburden government workers.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, introduced 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.
The bill also sets reasonable costs to provide requested documents, and 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.
Carol Mosley, speaking for the League of Women Voters of Alabama during a public hearing on the bill said the state’s current open records law is sorely lacking, and fails to give access to records that the law makes clear belong to the public.
“At present, state agencies and local governments can choose to ignore, deny or charge exorbitant fees for citizens to access records,” Mosley said.
Phillip Kinney with the lobbying firm Barton & Kinney, which is representing the Alabama Probate Judges Association, said the association’s concerns about the bill had been addressed.
Scott Duff, news director for WSFA 12, said If an agency does not want to respond to a records request “you must take legal action in many cases.”
“In many cases the media does win,” Duff said, noting that the costs of such litigation can call upon those local governments.
Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the association is against the bill, and warned that the bill would make all communications between public officials and the public open to records requests.
“At this point, there’s been no meetings. No real negotiations on the bill,” Brasfield said.
Orr said there is a meeting scheduled next week with the Association of County Commissions of Alabama to discuss those concerns.
Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said the bill does not change what is currently a public record, and provides all the exemptions that state law currently provides.
“This law does not change what is excluded and what is not excluded from the definition of a public record by the court system,” Bailey said.
Jane Williamson, speaking for the Alabama Association of School Boards, said the association is against the bill in its current form, and cited similar concerns about overburdening staff.
“We are supportive of getting a better law, and we want to work and get one, because we need a better one, so we ask you to oppose it just in its current form,” Williamson said.
Sen. Rodger Smithernman, D-Birmingham, and Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, both asked that all the entities with concerns be met with.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, voted against moving the bill out of committee after he spoke about concerns that it could place undue burdens on local governments.
“Not all cities and counties are created equal,” Givhan said. “Macon County does not have the resources Jefferson County has.”
“We’re 51st in the country,” Orr said, noting Alabama ranks dead last in complying with open records requests. A study by David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor, ranked Alabama last in the nation in responses to records requests.
“We can do better. These are public records. We can make improvements, but without causing a lot of havoc and problems across state governments,” Orr said.
Orr said he would not bring the bill to the full Senate floor until those entities with reservations on the bill are met with.