Every now and again, my faith is restored in our lawmakers in Montgomery. They formulate a bill that seems to actually serve the public interest — one that does right by the citizens of this great state! One that shines light on the governmental process — after all, sunshine is the best disinfectant! One that makes me want to eat apple pie, sing “God Bless America” and have the words “First Amendment” tattooed on my lower back, tramp stamp style.
That bill this legislative session is SB237, which comprehensively rewrites the Alabama Open Records Act, an “act” that is desperately needed so journalists and citizens alike can have better access to public records we are entitled to see and should be able to easily and affordably access.
Sponsored by State Sen. Cam Ward and our own Rep. Chris Pringle, SB 237 would add some teeth and clarity to the current law, which is pretty dentally challenged and vague.
Right now, when you make an open records request with a governmental agency, they have to get it back you in a “reasonable” timeframe. Let’s just say “reasonable” has many different meanings to those responding to these requests.
When Lagniappe was looking into alleged misuse of federal funds by the Mobile Police Explorers Club, it took months and months to obtain those records. We were trying to see if officers were using taxpayer money to take themselves and their own children on “educational trips” (aka vacations, like ski trips) rather than the disadvantaged children the program was designed to benefit.
They tried to obfuscate in every way possible. We were given a litany of reasons why they were having trouble producing them — no one knew where they were or they thought they were in boxes in some dark, dusty basement somewhere or at the bottom of the bay or perhaps frozen in ice on Mount Everest. We finally had to take them to court. And even then, what was provided was a mess that was very hard to make heads or tails of. The most cynical among us would say all of this was purposeful.
But we did ultimately report this program was not operating as intended, and it was shut down soon after.
Ward and Pringle’s bill would more clearly define “reasonable.” The agency would have to respond within five days from when the request was received, even if it was denied.
And it would also make the costs more uniform. Once again, the current law says those should also be “reasonable.”
Right now, an agency can determine what a records request would cost, and it seems to be quite arbitrary. It is supposed to include covering the basic costs of having someone gather the records and printing them. But how those costs are calculated are all over the place.
For example, we once had to take former Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood to court for trying to charge us $1,800 for three pages of public information, saying she had a standard $600 per page policy. She had just come up with said policy and price with no real rhyme or reason behind it. Other than to make getting it difficult. We ultimately were able to get the records for a lower price, but we still had to pay an attorney to fight for that reduction. Still a ridiculous price to pay for information that is all of ours.
And is the average citizen, who is equally entitled to these types of records, going to go to this kind of expense and effort to obtain such information? Not likely. Again, the cynics among us would say this is by design. And, in some cases, it may not even be to hide malfeasance, it could just be a classic case of we would rather spend time passing the new Avon catalog around than grabbing records for you, but in either case, the result is the same.
At press time, the nuts and bolts of the bill were being discussed by interested parties, but I am hopeful this much needed bill will be introduced and passed, and maybe I’ll even get that tramp stamp.
Kudos to State Sen. Cam Ward and State Rep. Chris Pringle!
Speaking of Ward, who is the chair of the Judiciary Committee, he has also stated that a horrific “ethics” bill that would essentially allow lawmakers to receive unlimited gifts from lobbyists and reduce taking bribes to pesky, little misdemeanors, would die in his committee.
God bless him. I hope he is right, because it needs to be killed, set on fire and the ashes need to placed in Mike Hubbard’s prison toilet. (Oh wait, he still hasn’t gone to jail yet, has he?)
This is exactly the kind of bill that makes you lose faith in all institutions and drives the angriest among us to start donning “Make America Great Again” caps or to feel like socialism sounds pretty cool.
The bill, SB 230, was introduced by State Sen. Greg Albritton and co-sponsored by State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh and also by our own State Sen. Chris Elliot of Fairhope, under the guise it would help with “economic development” in the state. Uh huh. It would help the economics of some (cough, lawmakers), not this state or its citizens.
This atrocious bill would remove the $25 cap on gifts lobbyists and principals are allowed to give to public officials. Don’t worry though, they would have to self-report the gifts they did receive. Because that would be easy to police.
It would also make theft of government property by public officials or taking bribes under $6,000 a misdemeanor. Right now, it’s punishable by up to 30 years in jail and fines five times that. And if you and I steal the same amount, well, we are going to Atmore (or Tutwiler) to get raped with a broomstick (see the DOJ’s report on the state of Alabama’s prisons if you want more information on that).
This also changes the definition of who a family member is. Under the new law, a spouse or dependent child couldn’t receive a gift from a lobbyist, but your mother, father, brother, sister, cousin or anyone else could take it. Or even your older child who is no longer claimed as a dependent. Should be really easy to split all of the spoils up at Thanksgiving — a whole new meaning to talking turkey.
This disgraceful bill is literally indefensible.
Marsh, who is expected to run for U.S. Senate went on a Birmingham talk radio show last week and sounded like an absolute buffoon. He couldn’t name a single “economic development” project that we have lost that these new “laws” would have saved. He couldn’t really explain any reason at all why it was needed — other than to enrich lawmakers — and he got so flustered he hung up on the host. Buh-bye Senate chances!
Albritton, Marsh and Elliot, along with the other eight state lawmakers who also proudly and audaciously put their names on this bill legalizing graft and corruption should be ashamed.
And, shame on all of us too, if we allow them to get away with this and if we send them back to Montgomery again, or to any other office, higher or lower, for that matter.
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