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Senate approves bill to strengthen public records law

A bill approved in the Alabama Senate Thursday requires government agencies to respond more promptly to public records requests. 

Current law says citizens have the right to inspect and receive copies of public documents and agencies should respond in a “reasonable” time, but doesn’t put any deadlines on the process. It’s not uncommon for citizens and members of the media to wait months, or longer, for requested information.

Senate Bill 196 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, says the agency receiving the request for documents must acknowledge it within 10 business days.

It would then have 20 days from the receipt of the request to provide the documents, deny the request, provide an estimated cost for copying the requested documents or explain why the request needed to be narrowed. If the agency believes responding to the request requires time that will affect its other duties, the requester should be given the option of limiting the scope of the request “so that it can be processed in an agreed upon time.” That shouldn’t be more than 45 days, according to the bill.

Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, said the organization applauds Orr for his efforts to strengthen Alabama Open Records law. 

“He has brought together many interested parties to find reasonable solutions to the basic process of requesting a public record,” Mason said. “Citizens have a right to know when to expect a response from a request and how long it will take to obtain a record.”

Gov. Kay Ivey in January signed an executive order requiring executive-branch agencies to respond to simple requests within 15 days and 45 days for more complicated requests. Her order also limited allowable fees to $20-per-hour for preparation time and 50 cents per page for paper copies.

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that a 2007 comparison of state open records laws conducted by the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition ranked Alabama at the bottom of the nation. While the review gave 38 states, including Alabama, an “F” grade, Alabama tied for last place in the comparative rankings.

Co-sponsors SB196 are Sens. Greg Albritton, R-Range; Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro; Tom Butler, R-Madison; Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa; Jabo Waggoner, Vestavia Hills; and Andrew Jones, R-Centre.

The bill now moves to the House. 

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