Alabama chalked up its lowest score in the State Integrity Investigation in the category Access to Public Information. The state scored a 40.6 in that category, ranking it 33th in the country.
The state’s low score in this category is almost entirely because it has no central office or defined mechanism for people to complain if they are denied access to public records or meetings, other than filing suit in court.
Alabama does have laws that give the public access to most government records and meetings. The state’s open records law defines public records broadly as any written materials made or received by a public officer as part of the transaction of public business, and it applies to any subdivision of government, including cities, counties and boards. Public officials who have custody of those records are expressly required to give citizens access to that material. Some exceptions are set out in law such as medical and law enforcement investigation reports. Alabama’s Open Meetings Act requires governmental bodies to conduct business during meetings that are open to the public.
But if members of the public are denied access to records or meetings they believe should be open, there is no administrative appeals agency or even specified administrative process for appealing. The only ways to protest are to either file suit in court, which can be expensive and time consuming, or attempt to apply political or social pressure through media attention, which is not a guaranteed solution.
State agencies do not generally deny the media or citizens access to public records, and when they do, they generally cite a reason.
“The way it works in practice is that most of the time we end up getting information pretty quick and free,” said Dennis Bailey, longtime general counsel for the Alabama Press Association.
But some state agencies do, on occasion, make getting the information more difficult. An al.com reporter last year was required to buy copies of public records from the Alabama Department of Corrections and wasn’t allowed to take photos of them on his cell phone. That was despite an earlier opinion from the state’s Attorney General’s Office that said citizens should be allowed to take photos of documents at no cost. After media coverage of the disagreement, the department changed its policy to allow photos to be taken of documents. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Mike Cason, another reporter with al.com, said the Purchasing Department has required reporters to either bring a copier or take photos, but has declined to make copies of documents.
Most often when access to public records has become an issue, it’s been at the local level. For instance, the Hoover City Schools System for 16 months refused to release payroll records that showed employee names and compensation. The records were finally released in April after the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion stating that the documents requested were public records, and that, in fact, it had been well established before that time that payroll records fell under the open records law.
Members of the public also have had bigger problems getting full access to meetings of government officials than they have getting records. Several incidents in recent years have eroded the public’s traditional rights to attend meetings in which government groups discuss issues or take action.
In 2012, the state’s Supreme Court ruled essentially that the Open Meetings Act did not apply to committees of a governmental body. The court said that if a committee met to discuss an issue that later would be discussed by the full body, then no open meeting was required. The ruling came in a case that involved back-to-back meetings of committees. Although a quorum of each committee was present, none of the committees constituted a quorum of the full board. The Legislature in June approved a law to close that “serial meeting” loophole, and the new law went into effect in September. It outlaws serial meetings and requires that any committee meetings during which a quorum of the committee deliberates be open.
Another blow to open meetings came when the state Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that two Alabama Public Television employees who had been fired after an executive session did not have standing to sue to protest the executive session. The employees’ suit did not ask for their jobs back; it asked the court to order the Alabama Educational Television Commission to have the discussion in an open meeting. The court ruled that anyone suing over an executive session must have more interest in the issue than a normal citizen. Since the employees were not seeking reinstatement to their jobs, the court said, they did not have more interest in the case than any other citizen and so did not have standing to sue.
Bailey said the ruling “took away the standing of most public citizens to file suit enough though the law says citizens can sue,” if they think their governments have held illegal executive sessions.