Our open records laws are a joke: Background for AL.com op-ed by Apryl Marie

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Alabama Today’s publisher, Apryl Marie Fogel, wrote an op-ed published Wednesday over on AL.com in her role as executive director and founder of Conservatives for Better Leadership (CBL), which seeks to hold elected officials accountable to the promises they’ve made on the campaign trail and to ensure transparency within state government. In the piece, she shines a light on the glaring problems with the state’s open records laws.

“While many throughout the state are focused solely on the much-needed changes to Alabama’s ethics laws, there’s another elephant in the room that cannot be ignored: much needed changes to our open records laws,” Fogel wrote. “Specifically, the law needs to be expanded and strengthened to include deadlines, spell out exceptions, and allow for civil and criminal penalties in cases where state employees are not in compliance.”

Fogel’s frustrations with the law stem from first-hand experiences in both her role with CBL, and her role at Alabama Today. Here, we’ve faced on-going issues with the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) dating back to May.

  • May 18: We first reached out to Tony Harris, spokesman for ALDOT, with questions about the flyover bridge project in Baldwin County. He called back that afternoon and promised a response the following week.
  • May 25: We had yet to hear anything back from Harris, so we reached out again and he said they were working on it.
  • June 12: Again, crickets from Harris and ALDOT, so we reached back out and more empty promises were made.
  • Aug. 24: after previously asking Alabama Today to avoid submitting an official public records request, Harris 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.
  • Aug. 24: officially submitted open records request with ALDOT
  • Aug. 28: ALDOT responded with letter saying we need to pay a $50 retrieval fee for the record to move forward
  • Aug: 29: retrieval fee is mailed to ALDOT

We’ve also had a fair share of issues getting much more innocuous information from Gov. Kay Ivey‘s office:

  • Jan. 4:We ask Daniel Sparkman, Press Secretary for Ivey, for a list of top agency heads the Governor has replaced from the Bentley administration by department and date for a simple story we’re working on for her appointments. This was to bring back a series we regularly published when Robert Bentley was governor. Sparkman tells us it’s going to take a while to put together the list, despite the fact it typically took Bentley’s team less than 24 hrs.
  • Jan: 11: Sparkman writes back asking a clarifying question to which we immediately respond
  • Jan 23: We’ve yet to hear back from Sparkman, so we reach back out. He provides us Cabinet changes, but offers no list of appointments that have been made saying he’s “still waiting on the Boards and Commissions.”
  • Jan 29: We check back in for the information, it’s still not available.
  • Feb. 26: Fogel now reaches out to Sparkman in hopes of moving this simple request forward more quickly.
  • Feb. 27: Fogel provides Sparkman with the information and process timeline we used to get from the Bentley administration.
  • March 5: Fogel follows-up on still unfulfilled records request.
  • March 6: We are sent an unsorted, unorganized list of all the appointments made since Ivey first took office. We publish our first segment of the list.
  • April 19: We requested all of the appointments from March 6 – current.
  • April 26: Another follow-up is made, no response.
  • May 9: Another follow-up is made, which now includes Ivey’s Chief of Staff Steve Pelham and Josh Pendergrass, her Communications Director. No response.
  • May 21: The three are emailed yet again, no response.

It’s now Sept. and we’ve yet to have the Governor’s office respond to our request.

It’s no wonder Fogel wrote, “No longer should the governor, her staff, and her cabinet members be able to do business in complete secrecy. No longer should they be able to skirt and mock transparency laws with a level of nonchalance that says to the public we are peasants in their kingdom who have to just take what they dish out if and when they provide anything at all.,” in her AL.com op-ed.

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