MONTGOMERY, Alabama (WSFA) – Alabama’s process for applying for public records is one of the most difficult in the country, according to a 2019 journalistic study by the University of Arizona. Only 10% of requests for records in Alabama have been completed.
“We don’t have a good track record as a state in getting people to see people’s recordings,” said Sharon Tinsley, president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s new executive order aims to change that. She wants to simplify the process through Executive Order 734.
According to a press release from the governor’s office, the new process reads:
- Calls on all law enforcement agencies to have a public records page on their website that includes a public records request form and a contact for assistance with public records requests.
- Sets improved response times based on the type of public record request made:
- A standard request is a public records request that seeks one or more very clearly identified documents that the agency determines would take less than 8 hours of staff time to process. Subject to modest extensions and receipt of required payment, the Agency stands ready to provide a substantive response within 15 business days.
- A time-consuming request is a public records request that the agency estimates would require more than eight hours of staff time to process, possibly because the request itself is vague or overbroad, or because significant effort is required to locate documents or redact proprietary information. The agencies give the applicant the opportunity to specify and narrow down the request. Subject to renewals and receipt of required payments, the Agency agrees to provide a substantive response, granting or denying the request, within 45 business days.
- Establishes a uniform schedule of fees. Executive Order 734 lowers fees by providing that records provided electronically will not be charged a per-page fee. The fee schedule is as follows:
- Document Retrieval and Preparation: The agency may charge the requester up to $20 per hour, including a minimum standard fee of $20, for the time spent locating, retrieving, and preparing records for production . The Agency shall not charge for legal review or redacting necessary to withhold legally protected information.
- Per Page Fees: The Agency may charge a per page fee of up to 50 cents for copies made on standard 8.5 x 11 paper. This fee does not apply to documents provided electronically.
- Actual Costs: The agency may also charge the actual costs incurred in processing a public record request if the applicant is informed of the costs before being charged. For example, the requestor may be charged for a flash drive or other hardware required for electronic record keeping, for special paper sizes, and for costs associated with searching electronic databases.
The aim is to make the state government more transparent.
“That transparency at least gets the conversation going,” said Peter Jones, a professor of public policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He says it can be costly to retrieve records.
“What we’ve seen in other states is really embracing this and being proactive,” Jones said. “And maybe put that kind of information, which is often requested, on a website so you don’t have to keep answering questions from different citizens.”
The Executive Order only affects government bodies.
“The work must continue because our cities and counties need more transparency,” Senator Arthur Orr said.
Orr wants to take transparency to another level and add similar policies for requesting records for cities and counties.
“We’ll have a little more wind behind our sails going into the 2023 session,” he said.
“Hopefully to bring about real change in communities and have access to public records. Knowing what’s going on in your community is a really important part of being able to do it,” Tinsley said.
These changes must be implemented by April 26th.
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