For years, the public has struggled to navigate the stipulations and bureaucracies of Alabama’s Open Records Law, whether it be a concerned citizen with limited resources or media outlets with the ability to take on government officials who repeatedly shrug off records requests.
Section 36-12-40 of the Alabama Code states, “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.” However, there is no enforcement mechanism for compliance beyond judicial challenges.
For the past two years, State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) has been attempting to change that and vows to try again in the 2021 legislative session. During an interview with Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” Ward criticized Alabama’s current open records law, noting that it is rated last in the country.
“We are rated last in the country in access to public records,” Ward said. “And I know it does put a burden on a lot of government agencies. And I want to make sure we do it in a way that is most efficient. But the fact that we’re last in having people to give access to the records their government holds. It is absurd. A lot of us ran out of time because the session ended with COVID-19. That being said, we need to bring that back up. I’ve brought it up two sessions in a row. This will be my third. Our open records law is a joke.”
Ward acknowledged the public’s attitude about government in general in 2020. The seeming unavailability of state records in a digital era that suggests documents should be more available did not help with the public’s perception, according to the Shelby County lawmaker.
“I don’t think there is confidence,” he said. “I don’t have confidence sometimes in it because the biggest opposition to reforming the records laws consisting says the same things over and over: ‘Well, it’s just too much work.’ Those records don’t belong to government agencies. They belong to the people.”
“Let’s face it, we’re at the height of cynicism of government right now,” Ward added. “And in this age of cynicism, the fact we’re going to say I’m not going to turn over any records — it only makes it worse. And it is the bureaucracy stopping people from seeing what is going on in their government. Internet technology — the way it is today, there is no reason we couldn’t have full transparency on those records that are legally allowed to be viewed by the public. Now there are certain privacy issues. There are certain confidentiality issues — would it be like a health care issue? Yes, there should be a block. But at the end of the day, if someone wants the minutes of a meeting or wants to know what happened to a session that’s not confidential, why shouldn’t they have access to it?”
@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.