May 6, 2019
Transparency of government is vital for a healthy government; in particular, access to public documents.
Ala. Code 1975 Open Records, § 36:12.40 “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
The game starts when a state, county, or municipal elected or appointed record custodian decides not to release the records, which subsequently may create personal financial burdens, and years, or to the “end of time,” stated Frank Dillman of Notasulga, Macon County as he has been forced to endure from his county leadership. The current Open Records Act has no time requirements for compliance, enables the government to charge excessive copy costs, and lacks penalties for non-compliance.
The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled the Open Records Act is to be “liberally” applied in favor of public access. Furthermore, the court defined “public writing” to include books, paper, letters, documents, and maps in the “transactions of public business.”
Senator Cam Ward has introduced SB237 to rewrite the majority of the outdated and unenforceable Open Records Act thereby providing a tool the average citizen seeking public documents can afford.
Laura Lane, Chair of Libertarian Party of Alabama, stated that SB237 is vital for open government, “SB237 is by far the most citizen-friendly piece of legislation I have seen from the Legislature in years. Citizens will find the law useful and encouraging to seek government documents eliminating expensive litigation when a public servant ignores the law.”
All of the obstacles Dillman has suffered by his county leadership will be illegal with SB237.
Ward’s bill provides for the creation of a Public Access Counselor in the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts availed to persons encountering violations of the law.
Also provided with SB237 are costs of 10 cents for non-color standard-sized copies and 15 cents for color copies on the same sized papers. Requestors may photograph and scan public documents at no cost. Record custodians will no longer be able to hide public records, stating they lack “custody” when a remote contractor maintains a record.
The Libertarian Party of Alabama supports SB237 for passage and requests citizens to contact their legislators to ensure they vote for greater transparency. Furthermore, the LPA encourages citizens to have a greater understanding of government business by attending government meetings and the use of Open Records requests.