Since its inception in 1901, the Alabama Department of Archives and History board has been one of the few in the state insulated from political pressure.
State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, said the department the board is too insulated from that pressure, and has pre-filed a bill to change that.
“The concern or realization (I had) was that the board doesn’t necessarily have to listen to elected officials, the people’s representatives, because it is self-perpetuating; they can do what they want to with impunity,” Elliott said. “Not a lot of boards in the state operate without public officials as appointing authority.”
The board is set up so that serving board members appoint new members to fill vacancies, with the appointments requiring confirmation from the Senate.
“This statutory provision has limited direct political pressure on the operations of the ADAH while also providing accountability to elected officials through the confirmation process in the Senate,” ADAH Director Steve Murray said in a statement to APR. “The result has been agency stability with professional and non-partisan administration of the historical materials that document Alabama’s past, including the foundational government records that guarantee the rights of Alabamians.”
Elliott’s bill would completely scrap the existing board in June 2024 and completely rewrite how they are appointed. Instead of a self-perpetuating board, the board would include eight at-large members and the governor, or a designee of the governor.
The eight board members would be selected by the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house and senate president pro tempore. Each officer would appoint one member to a four year term and another member to a two-year term.
Elliott has also included language to change diversity requirements within the board. Current language requires the board to reflect the racial and gender diversity of the state. Elliott’s rewrite would add that the board should also reflect geographic, urban, rural and economic diversity.
“As currently composed, the Board of Trustees consists of two members from each congressional district, two at-large members, and the Governor or her designee,” Murray said. “Demographically, not counting the ex officio Governor, the members are 73 percent white, 27 percent African American, 47 percent male, and 53 percent female. The trustees have diverse backgrounds and political persuasions. The characteristics most in common among them are an interest in history, a commitment to public service, and a belief in the mission of the ADAH as a place of stewardship and education. Every member of the Board has received Senate confirmation, and eleven members have been confirmed multiple times.”
The change stems from Elliott’s dispute with the department over a one-hour program held on the “invisible history” of LGBTQ+ Alabamians. Elliott and some other lawmakers asked the department not to host the program, but the department did not change course.
“That, in my mind, is in the past, but what that circumstance shone a light on is that the board is self-perpetuating,” Elliott said. “It does not answer to the people of Alabama.”
Elliott attempted to punish the department during a special session on redistricting, drafting a bill to claw back $5 million from the department’s budget. However, the bill couldn’t gain the traction it needed in time.
Murray is asking the Legislature to keep the board as it is.
“The ADAH respectfully encourages the Legislature to retain the governance structure that, for almost 125 years, has made possible the agency’s legacy of service, integrity, and commitment to ensuring that Alabama’s history is preserved for future generations,” Murray said.