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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Putting the "Public" back in Public Records

BLOGGER COMMENTS:  This has been a thorn in my paw for a long time.  You want to kill some time, increase your blood pressure and stress level, and say nasty things under your breath, just request some bureaucrat for a copy of a public record, any record, that's not available online.  First off, that thin-lipped blue-haired, underpaid harridan will deny the record exists, then deny it is a public record, and delay, delay, delay, then charge you $10 a page.  This is where you'd expect someone to say "just kidding".  Sorry;  it's no joke.  As the Al.com reporter says, the law as written is pretty good, but the holders of the information have laid a layer of landmines around the process.  Read on:

6 ways a new bill would put the ‘public’ back into Alabama’s public records



This is an opinion column.
Access to public records is not a media privilege, like seats in the press box at Bryant Denny Stadium.
Nor is it anybody’s privilege.
Public records belong to you — the public — and Alabama law once made it clear you had a right to inspect those documents and take copies upon request.
But years of meddling by public officials, obstinance from bureaucrats and the slow erosion of case law have chipped away at something that was once sacrosanct.
However, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and state Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, would put those documents where you could get them again. While not perfect, their legislation would bring Alabama in line with Florida, which is considered the gold standard among open government and transparency advocates.
Here are seven ways Ward and Pringle’s bill would make Alabama more transparent.  Like the headline writer, I only counted six.  No matter.  These six are just fine.

1. Copy costs cover cost only

Alabama law currently says public entities can charge “reasonable” fees to cover the expenses they incur providing documents to the public, but many state agencies and local governments have taken this as license to charge whatever they want.
The Birmingham Airport Board, for instance, can charge up to $2 per page for copies of public records. The Huntsville Police Department asks $10 per page for accident reports. Other agencies and local governments frequently ask as much as $1 per page.
Who knew ink and paper had become so expensive?
The proposed legislation would set a schedule for copy costs in line with what your local FedEx or UPS store probably charges: 10 cents for black and white, 15 cents for two-sided copies and 50 cents for color copies.
Also, electronic records are limited to 1 cent per page.
Members of the public would be able to inspect records for free, and anyone who wants to use their own equipment, such as a smartphone, to make copies could not be prohibited from doing so.

2. Records available during office hours

Some state and local agencies have limited the hours when records are open for public inspection, sometimes to a few hours per week or even per month.
The proposed legislation would open records for inspection during all office hours.

3. Requests and responses by mail

Another tactic used by government agencies to limit access is to require requestors to appear in person, no matter if they live in another part of the state.
Under the proposed legislation, requestors could send requests by mail or email on a standard form outlined by the new law.
Also, if the requestor prepays postage, they may receive the documents by mail.

4. The bill sets timelines and requires reasons for denials

The current law says state and local governments must provide public records within a “reasonable” amount of time, which to some state agencies and local governments has meant “never” or “after you take us to court.”
When Gatehouse Media recently sought records from the Alabama State Board of Midwifery, a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office told those reporters they’d have to sue if they wanted the state to even give a reason for denying a records request.
These guys know lawyers cost money, and it’s money you probably don’t have.
Under Ward and Pringle’s bill, government agencies would have five days to reply to a public records request, and denials would have to cite a statutory exemption to the open records law.

5. Public records are public, no matter who has them

When a sign at the Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport collapsed and killed a 10-year-old boy, the airport authority initially said it could not turn over blueprints and other design materials because those records were maintained by a private contractor — even though the airport’s contract said the records belonged to the authority.
Under Pringle and Ward’s bill “public records received or maintained by a private individual or business in the performance of a public function are still subject to the act.”

6. The bill creates an affordable appeals process

Under the bill, a member of the public could appeal denials to a state Public Access Counselor.
An appeal would require the requestor to put down $100, which would be refunded if the appeal were successful.
The Public Access Counselor would have the authority to review the request, see the documents in question, and decide whether the documents are public records.
Public officials who refuse to turn over public records could be subject to civil fines, escalating as high as $3,500 on a third offense. Public officials would be personally liable for those fines, which would be paid to the state General Fund.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.

5 comments:

  1. I happened to see the few records Ana and billable Barney released to the whistleblower. Many were incomplete and inaccurate. Looked more like cooked books. They sure didn’t provide the inmate food funds. When public officials ignore these request there is a hidden agenda or $160,000.00 dollar reason not to release the records.

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  2. Yep...prolly way more than 160...

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    1. Uuuuhhhhhh, I'd say closer to 1 mil.

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  3. Must be rough. Is Charlie still in picture...

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  4. Evil people stand together. Is Bones still shacked up with Ana. Or is it Charlie

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