MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Legislation that would give the public greater access to government records is expected to be taken up by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee as early as next week. Senate Bill 237 would establish the Alabama Open Records Act and overhaul the state’s current open records law, which is one of the weakest in the country.
“There’s a lot of push back,” stated Senator Cam Ward. “Anytime you propose changes this big and drastic there’s going to be push back.”
SB237 is no exception. The bill would tighten loopholes in the current law and grant greater, more timely access to public records.
“In 21st century technology we should have 21st century laws to use to get open records and transparency,” he explained. “It’s the public’s right to know what’s going on in their state government, county government, and city government.”
In short, the bill would implement a five day turnaround time for an entity to produce requested documents, create a fee schedule for copying records, and establishes a Public Access Counselor in the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts that would act as a mediator between the requester and the agency.
“The existing open records law in Alabama is very vague,” stated Sharon Tinsley, President of the Alabama Broadcasters Association. “It’s written in a way where there’s loopholes that help public agencies push back and not respond in a timely manner - or not respond at all.”
The bill clarifies various terms in the current law, including the definition of a reasonable response time and reasonable fees to charge for records. Something that’s been largely left to the interpretation of records custodians.
“There’s no excuse this day in age to use a long period of time to produce a document which can be emailed,” Ward stated.
Tinsley says creating an ombudsman to oversee this process will help solve the issue.
“We are talking about a person who would be a mediator for the four million plus citizens of the State of Alabama when they need something that belongs to them,” she stated. “A public record belongs to the public. You should get the work that was funded by tax dollars.”
The bill would require an entity to cite why they refusing an open records request and creates a direct path for appeal. A civil penalty would be imposed for those who are non-compliant.
“People would be held accountable,” said Tinsley. “This ombudsman would be the person to determine if a fine was due. There’s got to be some consequence for not answering a records request.”
The bill drew reference from other southern states with successful open records laws, including Florida, known for having one of the strongest open records laws in the country.
The proposed standards are a chief concern for some associations and government advocates.
The League of Municipalities opposes this bill; they feel the demands would create an unreasonable burden for cities. The Association of County Commissions of Alabama is also concerned about how to implement the bill on a local level; however, ACCA’s executive director Sonny Brasfield says his agency will continue to participate in discussions to find workable solutions for this legislation.
“This is worthwhile,” stated Ward. “This is something that needs to be changed. Government moves slow. Change comes about slow, but you have to start at some point.”
Rep. Chris Pringle is sponsoring the bill in the House.
This bill is supported by Alabama Press Association and the Alabama Broadcasters Association. WSFA 12 News is a member of the ABA.