Sunshine Week: Open the Windows and Light up the Workings of Government

(Source: the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press)

This week, reporters across the country are observing Sunshine Week, an event designed to highlight the importance of government transparency and to increase public understanding of freedom of information resources.

Sunshine Week was started by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and is now co-sponsored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In addition to a series of public forums happening across the country — none are scheduled for Birmingham — Sunshine Week will include a series of online webinars focusing on how to navigate transparency laws on federal, state and local levels. A full list of events can be found on the Sunshine Week  website.

Local Transparency

Alabama freedom-of-information provisions largely break down into two laws: the Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. The Open Records Act gives citizens the right to view and copy public documents, while the Open Meetings Act gives citizens the right to attend meetings of agencies, boards, commissions and other governmental bodies. Both have exceptions — some of which have garnered criticism for being too broad — and some legislators have suggested that penalties for violating the act are not strict enough. Others have called for Alabama’s transparency laws to be updated to account for new technology such as police body cameras, the footage of which is not addressed in the Open Records Act.

The state government’s website offers an open government portal that provides breakdowns of state spending; registered lobbyists’ filings; state leases, land and buildings; campaign finances; expenditures by public universities and community colleges; and public records from the governor’s office. The state Senate streams its meetings live through its website; the House provides a live audio stream of meetings.

The Jefferson County Commission offers an open data hub, launched in November, featuring revenue distribution, zoning maps, and property information for any parcel in the county. County Commissioner Lashunda Scales recently began streaming commission meetings through her Facebook page and through her personal website.

On the municipal level, Birmingham offers several public transparency resources, such as an OpenGov portal that provides interactive breakdowns of city spending, police and fire department data, and census and zoning data. Birmingham’s Open Checkbook feature provides more detailed and current information about city finances, while the city website also offers a log of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s travel expenditures, updated through the end of last year. Woodfin has also announced that his office will soon unveil a database allowing residents to check the status of the city’s capital projects.

The city council, meanwhile, streams all of its council and committee meetings through its Facebook page, and recently passed legislation to hold one council meeting per quarter in the evening in an effort to allow more people to attend — ”a step toward increasing transparency,” said Councilor Clinton Woods. The council has received some criticism over a lack of transparency in the past year, particularly regarding its handling of a new program to install surveillance cameras — although that ordinance was handled in compliance with the Alabama Open Meetings Act.