Alabama has never been known for its open and transparent government, but the response to a relatively mundane Open Records Act request that I submitted to the Alabama Real Estate Commission a month ago still managed to catch me by surprise.
The legal counsel for the Commission, Serena Cronier, an assistant attorney general by virtue of her position at a state agency, told me that to review the public records I requested, I would first have to submit one of several specific forms of ID proving that I am a resident of the state of Alabama.
What the what?
Now, I’m sure that Cronier was simply following along with guidelines put in place by the bigwigs at AREC, but I have to say that asking for someone from the Alabama Political Reporter – a publication that isn’t exactly new to the state – to first prove that he is, in fact, from Alabama, was a new and spectacularly ridiculous hurdle put in place by bureaucrats who want only to stop taxpayers from seeing the reality of what their taxes are paying for.
To her credit, Cronier was very forthcoming in explaining the origin of the new impediment to public record access. It was tied to an opinion issued by the AG’s office following an opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. That opinion simply stated that citizens from other states did not automatically enjoy the same access to public records in other states, and that states could limit access if they wished.
Of course, nothing in the opinion required Alabama to limit access, or establish yet another hurdle in accessing records for its own citizens, but when we err in this state, we do so on the side of less public access to public records.
And make no mistake about it – this additional hurdle serves no real purpose other than to deter people from accessing public documents.
It’s part of the reason why Alabama desperately needs to pass meaningful and useful public records laws. While our lawmakers, like Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers, talk and talk about “transparency” and desiring a government open to the people of the state, the reality is that our laws make it insanely easy for agencies to hide records, ignore requests and require exorbitant fees for producing records that the public has already paid to produce originally.
But don’t take my word for it.
A quick search through the website muckrock.com shows just how ineffective our laws are and how some agencies and public institutions abuse the loopholes. I’m going to focus on a specific string of requests, because they offer a good contrast, but make no mistake about it – and feel free to ask anyone in the state who files Open Records Act requests – these stalling tactics and hope-you’ll-give-up hurdles are very common.
(Quick aside: if you’re unfamiliar with muckrock, for a small fee, the site files open records and Freedom of Information Act requests for anyone. It then tracks the responses and correspondence and posts them for public access – so everyone can view how their state agencies are cooperating with open government laws.)
In February and March, someone used the website to request information from numerous state agencies, including AREC, the Homebuilders Licensure Board, the Medical Examiners Board, Real Estate Appraisers Board, Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examiners Board and several others. The requests asked for a variety of information, which varied from agency to agency, but generally included cell phone records and records for travel and expense reimbursements for executives.
The origin and purpose of the requests is unclear. I stumbled upon them after using the site to request records from another state and noticed the documented examples on the website.
Those requests and the resulting replies reveal to the average citizen two things: 1. How requests should be handled by state agencies, and 2. How our lack of strong open records laws allows agencies to prevent access to public records.
For example, on Feb. 17, the exact same requests went to the Medical Examiners Review Board, the Real Estate Appraisers Board and AREC. The requests, specifically, were for an itemized list of all reimbursed expenses for the executive director, general counsel and director of board operations for all of 2021 and 2022, and also the cell phone records for all three individuals for the same time period.
On March 3, less than a month later and without asking for any other information or requiring any additional information, the Medical Examiners Review Board general counsel simply provided the requested records.
If you think that’s amazing, the Real Estate Appraisers Board turned over the records on THE SAME DAY the request was made. (To be fair, this board had only an executive director and executive secretary and the board did not provide cell phones for either, so filling the request was a bit easier. But still, turning over all travel reimbursement records for a two-year period on the same day the request came in should get someone a public service award.)
But here’s the bad: AREC still hasn’t turned over a single record in the nearly four months since the request was made.
Instead, five days after the original request, Cronier responded to say that it was AREC policy that the request be made on the official records request form used by AREC, and provided a link to that document.
A month later, after muckrock re-submitted the request on the form, Cronier responded again – this time to say that the request was incomplete and that a proof of Alabama residency must be provided as well.
A few days later after both had been provided, Cronier responded to the request only to say that the information requested could be found on the Alabama Open Checkbook website and that the Commission didn’t provide cell phones for its top-level staff.
Except, that’s nonsense. Specific records for reimbursements are NOT available on that website. What is available is a list of reimbursement amounts – simple dollar figures not tied to any specific expense.
But somewhere at AREC, there is a record of what that expense was for – or, at least, there should be. And that’s what the original requester – whoever contracted muckrock to make the request – was obviously after. And that person had every right to those records under the law.
And the reason that person – and YOU – have every right to those records is because OUR MONEY paid that bill. We reimbursed those expenses. We paid for those cell phones. And we should have every right to periodically examine the public records and ensure that our money is being spent appropriately.
And that’s where our public records laws fall short. Because they do not establish a clear requirement for keeping specific records or a clear process for turning them over or a clear punishment for agencies that fail to do so. Instead, our laws allow us to be kept in the dark and allow crooks and cheats to run up bogus expense tabs and hide hundred-dollar lunches.
In the meantime, they also allow agencies to require you and me and all the other good taxpayers out there to jump through a hundred hoops and dodge a dozen bureaucrats to just to get a look at the records we paid for in the first place.