Alabama Senate approves bill requiring agencies to respond to open records requests

Bill sponsor says that timelines are the most important part of the bill

By: - May 11, 2023 1:50 pm
A man in profile with his back facing the camera.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee, on the floor of the Alabama Senate on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Senate Thursday approved a bill that would require most public agencies to acknowledge and respond to public records requests.

SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed the Senate 33-0 after senators made changes to the bill on the floor.

“The most important aspect of the bill are the timetables, and some of the back and forth if the government entity needs more time, they can take more time if they’re running into some difficulties,” Orr said Thursday afternoon. “There were also some protections added for private or confidential documentation. Schools have some of that, where it’s not allows, and there were just protections that this wouldn’t override confidential information that’s provided for elsewhere.”

Alabama has one of the worst open record laws in the country. State law does not currently require public agencies to respond to document requests. Public bodies in Alabama average about 146 days to respond to requests for information, according to MuckRock, a nonprofit organization that focuses on open governments.

In 2022, Investigative Reporters and Editors awarded the “Golden Padlock” award to Hunstville, which highlights secretive governments, for not releasing body cam footage of an incident involving a police officer shooting and killing a man who was struggling with suicide.

Gov. Kay Ivey signed an executive order in January requiring agencies to respond to records requests and placed limits on the fees charged to the public for reproducing the documents.

Orr has brought similar open records bills in the past, but groups representing local governments have often opposed them, citing the potential to be flooded by bad faith requests.

The bill as amended would require public records requests to be mailed, submitted in person, or submitted electronically if an agency establishes a process for accepting them.

The public records custodian must acknowledge the request within 10 days of receiving it. The bill would not apply to judicial records. The bill also prevents the disclosure of “sensitive or other nonpublic information.”

Within 20 days, the agency must grant the request; deny it or grant it in part and deny it in part, and explain why. The agency must also inform the requester of any fees to fill the request. Orr’s bill does not cap fees that an agency may charge.

If the request is granted, the agency would have 15 days to determine whether the information is sensitive or nonpublic and up to 45 days to produce the material.

The bill does not provide an appeals process for denied requests.

As filed, the bill would have required agencies to acknowledge requests in six days and respond 16 days.

The legislation moves to the Alabama House.

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.