I recently attended a speech by Dennis Bailey, a Montgomery attorney who has been involved in media law since 1980, on open records and open meeting laws in Alabama. To phrase it mildly, I am utterly disturbed and equally horrified with transparency in my home state and the country.
According to the Alabama Public Records Law, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
Bailey pointed out that our very brief state law leaves much to the imagination, in contrast to extensive federal FOIA requirements. In-state guidelines are quite vague as to when documents must be released after the initial request is made and who should fill these requests.
In addition, the state’s governmental website A.L.I.S.O.N., or Alabama Legislative System Online, does not promote easy navigability and is of poor quality. The site’s search feature is particularly problematic, and public documents are difficult to find.
“Ideally government should be proactive at transparency and not reactive,” Jackson said. “Government tends to view the data it collects as belonging to them and not to the public.”
Public universities also prove problematic. The latest crime report from the University of Alabama is from 2012. Actual crime statistics are buried about 40 pages into the 100-page document. The reader must first sift through paragraph upon paragraph of public relations fluff on how the university encourages campus safety and well-being. And then (Thank you, Lord!) the arrest numbers appear.
I’m writing a story on the incidence of heroin use among students in the area. This document states that 103 arrests were made on campus in 2012 for drug violations. A tiny little chart that was inserted into the text informs me of this. I can’t tell you how annoying this is. Those first 40 pages of heartwarming positivism told me everything I needed to know. Oh, wait! They didn’t. I need information on which drug violations occurred. But I guess I can get that information from the Campus Police department itself. Oh, wait! I have to go through the one public relations official that filters reporters for the entire university. Or I could submit a FOIA request that might take days to get.
Furthermore, a recent report from the Sunshine Review, a non-profit organization that tracks and measures the nation’s availability of government data, gave Alabama the grade of “C”on overall government transparency. Not one state in the country scored an A.