Over a decade ago, Alabaster-Republican State Sen. Cam Ward, sat on the “Open Records Study Task Force.” Tasked with revamping the Alabama’s Public Records Law that was first enacted in 1923, the group worked to create “a clear and uniform process through which citizens may obtain access to public information and documents.”
Flash-forward 13 years later and Ward joins a chorus of people, including State Auditor Jim Zeigler who addressed the issue just yesterday, who think it’s time to revisit the law yet again in the upcoming 2019 legislative session.
Ward told Alabama Today he’s been noticed “multiple problems” with the law pop over throughout the state.
“Now that technology has evolved, the loopholes [in the law] have started presenting themselves. We need to take action and close those loopholes,” said Ward.
Alabama’s Public Records Law is a relatively short, sweeping statement found in Section 36-12-40 of the Alabama Code that dictates the public’s right to inspect and copy official documents from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state government. The law has also been applied by the courts to various city, county, municipal, and state personnel, departments, boards, and commissions.
The problem Ward, and many others, are finding with the law is that it does not prescribe enforcement procedures. Should a government official fail to respond to the records request, citizens and the media must choose between letting their questions go unanswered, or filing a costly lawsuit in hopes of getting the information.
“These smaller newspapers in the State, they don’t have a budget for these lawsuits, and the average citizen who is trying to provide oversight to their government really doesn’t have the budget for that. It just shouldn’t be so much of a problem for the government to be transparent,” Ward told Inside Alabama Politicswho first reported on the bill today.
Ward thinks they ought to be a penalty system to change.
“We need a clear clarification for penalties when officials don’t provide information, or fail to provide it without unreasonable delay,” Ward explained. “That said, we need to figure what an appropriate turn-around time for these documents should be. After all, ‘reasonable’ is defined in the eye of the beholder.”
Ward believes with technology advances, it should be easier than ever to provide electronic document to a requester as government officials no longer need to make copies of the documents, and are able to send them electronically now easing the process.
Weaknesses in the law
There is no language that states how long the state has to respond to a public records request.
Fees are not stipulated by law. One department may charge one fee, while another may charge something entirely different. The Department of Corrections, for example, requires a flat $25 fee for them to begin to process a request. Meanwhile the Secretary of State’s office requires $1.00 per copied page, rather than a flat fee.
Not all agencies have a clear employee in charge of requests, thus making tracking down the correct person difficult.
There is no defined appeals process when a requestor does not get what they were asking for.