Viewpoint: Open Records Law Needed

Over the course of our mission, the BBJ regularly requests access to public records. Unfortunately, those requests often fall on deaf ears. And we’re not alone.

Members of the media and Alabama citizens regularly encounter situations where our local and state governments say they can’t provide records that are easily obtained in other states, including our neighbors. That’s unacceptable, especially in a state where so many politicians run on the ideals of transparency and open government.

It’s particularly problematic in terms of contracts, which Alabama officials often say they can’t provide due to nondisclosure agreements with private companies, proprietary information for those companies or similar reasons even though the companies involved know fully well that contracts with public entities are indeed public documents.

But that begs the question why our state and local governments – the customer in many of these contracts – are more willing to protect their vendors than their taxpayers and citizens.

If contracts aren’t open to inspection, how do we know our governments are getting a good deal? Unfortunately, we don’t. But contracts are just one part of the larger public records puzzle.

We’ve faced challenges seeking public records on a range of topics, from vendor agreements and incentives to even simple requests like copies of an annual budget. Many of our requests aren’t even in pursuit of controversial records. Often they are seeking data to aid in the BBJ’s efforts to provide local business intelligence and help our readers grow their businesses. To be fair, we do have plenty of local governments and state offices that do respect the public’s right to know, and we commend them.

But there are too many entities that aren’t taking their duties seriously. Instead, they are ignoring or outright refusing to allow the public or members of the media to inspect documents.

While they are rightfully to blame for those decisions, it’s important to note the role Alabama’s lackluster open records law plays in this situation.

Currently, public officials in Alabama have little incentive to comply with public records requests because the law is one of the weakest in the nation. They can essentially ignore the request and dare media outlets or members of the public to file suit to obtain records that should be available for public inspection. A bill, sponsored by Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, would change that. It would inject some common sense and checks and balances into the state’s public records law – the tools needed to hold officials accountable.

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