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Sponsor, advocates vow to bring back public records bill

A bill to require government agencies respond to public record requests within a set time died again this legislative session, but the sponsor and advocates say they’ll try again next year.

Senate Bill 196 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, as approved by a House committee, required government agencies to acknowledge a request within 10 business days and respond to most within 20 days. Agencies could take up to 45 business days under circumstances where fulfilling the request would take an exorbitant amount of time and an additional 15 if the request related to sensitive documents.

The bill did not get a vote in the House on the final day of the session last week, at least in part because of concerns from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.

“We have made meaningful progress already through the governor’s executive order on public records, and this bill, on this final day of Session, was not ready for passage,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola told Alabama Daily News.

Existing law allows for Alabamians to request public records and says agencies should respond in a reasonable timeframe. People and members of the media can wait months for information.

Ivey in January signed an executive order saying executive-branch agencies should respond to simple requests within 15 days and 45 days for more complicated requests. It allows for multiple time extensions. 

“The bottom line is the governor’s legal team did not like the fact that the 45 days was a finite timeline in our bill,” Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, told Alabama Daily News. “There are all sorts of ways that (agencies) could ask them for more time, but at some point, it had to come to an end. And that is in direct conflict with her executive order.”

Mason said the APA would not agree to an amendment that would have exempted state agencies from the bill. 

Orr has sponsored bills to beef up the access law in multiple sessions and said he will again next year.

“I’m baffled as to why they would want until the 11th hour when the bill had come through the Senate, through the House committee, and not a peep was heard until the bill was ready for a floor vote and all concerned parties had an agreed upon draft,” Orr said. “While I applauded the governor’s executive order of January, that executive order, in my opinion, is still deficient because it allows for endless 45-day extensions.”

Orr said there needs to be fair but definitive response times to requests.

“That’s the problem we have with the current law, the word ‘reasonable’ is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. 

Mason said the press association and Alabama Broadcasters Association worked with multiple groups representing city and county governments, school boards and higher education to get a bill they’d accept. Mason said the press association and broadcasters will try to meet with Ivey’s office prior to the next legislative session.

“A public record is a public record and everybody needs to be following the same set of rules,” Mason said.

2020 study by the National Freedom of Information Coalition that scored states based on ease of access to public records ranked Alabama with a score of 10 out of 100, the single lowest score out of all 50 states. 

“That’s a loathsome label to have,” Orr said about the state’s ranking.

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