Jim Zeigler ready to champion updates to public record laws after continued ALDOT inaction

Foley Beach Express Bridge
Foley Beach Express Bridge

It’s a very familiar story on Alabama Today — another week has passed and still, the Alabama State Auditor has yet to receive a response from the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Transportation Director John Cooper and ALDOT Chief Counsel William Patty regarding further information about an $87 million state-funded bridge project in Baldwin County.

Now, State Auditor Jim Zeigler has grown impatient with the lack of answers and tells Alabama Today he is ready to champion updating the state’s public record laws, which have left him at a loss for how to proceed.

ALDOT’s history of inaction

It all began in April, when Zeigler made a request for public documents.

At the time, he requested the following documents from the ALDOT:

  1. Copies of any and all studies that demonstrated a need for a bridge over the Intercoastal waterway
  2. Any and all documents that show a change in the need for the Intercoastal bridge since the determination in 2016 that the bridge was unnecessary
  3. Any and all analyses to support spending $30-$87 million in state funds in light of the pressing infrastructure needs throughout the state
  4. Any and all documents that resulted in the range of costs projected ($30 to $87 million)
  5. Documents that show cost overruns on current and recent ALDOT projects
  6. According to the court filing from the bridge company, they agreed to widen their bridge at no additional cost to Please provide any and all documents that address why the option of widening the original bridge is not being utilized.

But after three months, the State Auditor, who filed the request as an everyday Alabama citizen, had not received any update from the ALDOT, so he filed a second follow-up request July 12, 2018 giving ALDOT’s Cooper and Patty a deadline to respond: August 17.

Now, nearly a full month past the deadline, Zeigler facing a dilemma many Alabamians truth-seekers face: what’s he supposed to do next?

With no clear answers written in law, Zeigler’s taken the next logical step on his fact-finding mission: write a letter to the Legislative Services Agency at the Alabama State House in hopes that they will provide him with the necessary information of what the legal next step he can take is.

“In looking over the applicable law, I could not find any legal deadline for compliance by an agency of official. Also, I am uncertain about the remedy a citizen would have for non-compliance,” Zeigler wrote in his letter addressed specifically to Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency.

An unworkable law

Frustrated by the entire situation, Zeigler is ready to champion updating the state’s public record laws, which he calls “unworkable”.

“This has been frustrating. To have a public records law that lacks any deadline is unworkable and unacceptable,” Zeigler told Alabama Today. “I am considering taking the lead for a bill in the March 2019 regular legislative session that would add a deadline for providing public records and specific remedies when agencies do not comply.”
“If I as an elected state official cannot obtain public records, imagine the normal citizen,” Zeigler added.

Zeigler asked Lathram two questions:

  1. What is the legal deadline for compliance with a proper request for public documents?
  2. What are the remedies available to the requester in the event of failure to provide?

Zeigler’s not alone

Zeigler’s not alone in running into issues trying to get public information from state officials.

In May, AL.com‘s Kyle Whitmire ran into problems when requesting information from Attorney General Steve Marshall‘s office. He was told his request was not public information.

Alabama Today has repeatedly faced similar issues when reaching out to ALDOT ourselves.

We first reached out to Tony Harris, spokesman for ALDOT, on May 18 with our own questions about the bridge project. He called back that afternoon and promised a response the following week. Flash-forward to May 25 then again June 12, more empty promises of information that never came. Finally on Aug. 24, after previously asking Alabama Today to avoid submitting an official public records request, he tells us that is what we have to do if we want the information. That there are issues being held up in the courts (by the way, they’ve all been resolved) and he’s unable to answer otherwise.

Read Zeigler’s full letter to Lathram below: