Ivey issues new rules for state’s open record request process

Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 7:51 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The public record request process in Alabama is one of the most difficult in the country, according to a 2019 University of Arizona journalism study. Only 10% of the Alabama records requests were completed.

“We don’t have a good track record as a state in making the people’s records available to the people,” said Sharon Tinsley, president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s new executive order aims to change that. She wants to simplify the process through Executive Order 734.

According to a press release from the governor’s office, the new process:

  • Requires all executive-branch agencies to establish a public records page on their website that includes a public records request form and a contact for assistance with public records requests.
  • Establishes improved response times based on the type of public records request being made:
    • A standard request is a public records request that seeks one or more very clearly identified documents that the agency determines would take less than 8 hours of staff time to process. Subject to modest extensions and the receipt of any required payment, the agency will be prepared to provide a substantive response within 15 business days.
    • A time-intensive request is a public records request the agency determines would take more than eight hours of staff time to process, perhaps because the request itself is vague or overly broad or because substantial efforts will be required to locate documents or redact legally protected information. Agencies will give the requester an option to clarify and narrow the request. Subject to extensions and the receipt of any required payment, the agency will be prepared to provide a substantive response fulfilling or denying the request within 45 business days.
  • Establishes a uniform fee schedule. Executive Order 734 cuts fees by providing that no per-page fee be charged for records provided electronically. The fee schedule is as follows:
    • Document retrieval and preparation: The agency may charge the requester up to $20 per hour, including a standard, minimum fee of $20, for time spent locating, retrieving and preparing records for production. The agency may not charge for legal review or redaction necessary to withhold legally protected information.
    • Per page fees: The agency may charge a per page fee of up to 50 cents for copies produced on standard 8.5x11 paper. This fee is not applicable for documents provided electronically.
    • Actual cost: The agency may also charge any actual costs incurred in processing a public records request if the requester is informed of the cost in advance of being charged. For example, the requester may be charged for a flash drive or other hardware necessary for electronically producing records, for special paper sizes, and for costs associated with searching electronic databases.

The goal is to make the state government more transparent.

“This transparency at least starts the conversation,” said Peter Jones, a public policy professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He says it can be costly to retrieve records.

“What we’ve seen other states do is really get in front of this and be proactive,” said Jones. “And maybe put those types of information that are often requested, go ahead and put it out there on a website so that you’re not having to field questions all of the time from different citizens.”

The executive order only impacts state agencies.

“The work must continue because our cities and counties need more transparency,” said Sen. Arthur Orr.

Orr wants to take transparency to another level and add similar records request guidelines for cities and counties.

“We’ll have some more wind behind our sails when we go into the 2023 session,” he said.

“Hopefully bring about real change in communities and having access to public records, knowing what’s going on in your community is a really important part of the ability to do that,” said Tinsley.

These changes must be implemented by April 26.

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