Overhaul of Alabama’s public records law dies on last day of session
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)
Alabama will not overhaul its public records law this year.
The Alabama House of Representatives looked ready to adjourn Tuesday without voting on SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Tuesday, the last day of the 2023 legislative session.
Legislators said last-minute disagreements with Gov. Kay Ivey’s office kept the bill from a final vote on the House floor.
“Honestly, I think it’s one of the things that the governor really wanted to look at closer,” said Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville.
Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, said in a statement that the “governor’s legal team did not agree with the finite timeline to produce a public record” in an emailed statement.
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.
Mason pointed out that the position contradicted the Executive Order she signed earlier this year.
“That is in conflict with the her Executive Order released earlier that allows the 45-day extensions to go on indefinitely,” she said.
Gov. Ivey has made “meaningful progress already” with the executive order, said the office on Tuesday evening, and that the bill “was not ready for passage.”
“I’m sad about that,” said Rep. Cynthia Almond, R-Tuscaloosa, who carried the bill in the House. “We worked really hard to work out a compromise bill that most of the parties could live with, and I thought it was a good bill. Hopefully we will have it back early next year and get it across the finish.”
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 Huntsville, 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.
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Orr’s bill would have paralleled Ivey’s order to some extent. As passed by the Senate, it would have required public agencies to acknowledge public records requests within 10 days, and grant, deny, or grant the request in part within 20 days.
If the request would have been granted, the agency would have had 15 days to determine whether the information is sensitive or nonpublic and up to 45 days to produce the material.
The bill did not provide an appeals process for denied requests.
The bill was changed significantly in the House committee last week and was replaced with a substitute bill that not only tightened the process for requesting a document, but also removed liability from public records officers if they fail to respond to open records requests.
Almond said last week that the changes were made to put more responsibility on the requester and ensure they follow the process. The bill would have allowed public record officers to ignore a request if “it is vague, ambiguous, overly broad, or unreasonable in scope” or if the requester does not properly follow the process set forth by the individual agency.
The substitute bill also removed a provision that would make the failure to respond as a denial and a violation and changed the term “public record” to “public writing.”
The bill would not have applied to judicial records, as well as the disclosure of “sensitive or other nonpublic information.”
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.
This story was updated at 8:03 p.m. to include a statement from the Alabama Press Association and at 9:13 p.m. to include a statement from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.
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