Too often, public records carry a bad reputation because they’re seen through prying eyes: Why does (insert name here) want those records, and what will they do with them?
Newspapers, for instance. For reporters who cover city halls and statehouses and universities, public records are gold mines of information. Much of it’s minutiae; some of it, however, fuels the heart of journalism — information the public needs, and deserves, to know.
This bad rap isn’t fair. Public records are public to everyone, whether you’re a journalist looking for data about government action or a taxpayer wanting to know details about your city. Many who make public-records requests are Normal Joes who, one way or another, have a vested interest in and a legal right to the information.
That’s what The Star’s special report on Sunday showed — how it’s not unusual for people to seek access to public records for their own personal use. This editorial board has fought hard for better open-records laws in Alabama, and that’s a major reason why.
In other words, open records should be open for all.
In case you missed it, The Star’s report detailed several instances in recent years when residents had filed open-records requests with the city of Anniston. What these examples showed was the scope of people who make such requests. One is a restaurant owner, David Mogil, who told The Star, “I didn’t have any problems at all. The people who handled that made it pretty easy.” One was the sister of slain Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub, A third was a man with a case in small-claims court.
None of them were journalists.
The other aspect of open-records laws is the timeframe in which the requests are handled. That’s long been a point of contention between those who control the records and those seeking access to them: why does it take so long to get an answer?
Based on The Star’s research, that remains a serious problem. There is scant uniformity in the response times at police departments, city halls and the like, and it’s unfortunately common for those who want to keep records in dust-covered bins to use subterfuge as a tactic.
Delay, delay, refuse.
That’s neither acceptable nor legal. Theoretically, open-records laws — even weak ones — exist to be followed. We continue to advocate for stiffer penalties and more stringent state guidelines for public-records requests in this state. If that sounds as if we’re a broken record on this issue, then consider us guilty as charged.
Alabamians should consider this a fundamental right of living here, voting here and paying taxes here. You deserve to know how public entities operate and how they spend their money.