The board in a special meeting Thursday talked about a proposal from member Bill Robison to provide to attendees at meetings the same background information provided to board members about items on the agenda, minus personnel information.
Robison asked the board attorneys who attended the meeting, Jim Campbell and Burgin Kent, what information would be acceptable to release to the public. But Board President Mary Harrington was having none of it. Before the attorneys could answer, she began stating her objections to releasing any information before the meeting.
“It’s not that anybody has anything to hide,” Harrington said. “We do have a lot of people that come to you and say, ‘I want to know what you’re voting on. It’s (an) open meeting I demand to know now and if it’s not we need to know the names of who you’re going to hire.’ That’s not correct.”
Campbell said the state doesn’t have a public records act with the exception of one statute that defines a public record; but there is case law on the subject, he said.
However, Section 36-12-40 of the Alabama Code says “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.”
The Supreme Court, Campbell said, ruled that a body can require a form that states the reason a resident wants the information and can charge for records.
“If you go down like for instance in the city of Anniston and try to get some public records from them, you’re going to go down there with a check,” Campbell told the board members.
For Anniston City Council meetings, the city of Anniston provides the background information to The Star electronically before meetings at no charge.
After the meeting, city Manager Don Hoyt said that to obtain records, a resident needs to come by City Hall and fill out the request form. If it’s a small document or one that is available electronically, there is no charge. If a resident requests a large document or one that requires a lot of research by staff, the city will ask for reimbursement for staff time and supplies.
Campbell also said that a task force set up to make recommendations on the open records law said five days is a reasonable amount of time to provide those records.
Robison mentioned that he could access the background information for Anniston City Council meetings online.
“That’s not something they’re required to do under the law,” Campbell said.
But Robison, a former mayor of Anniston, said he couldn’t see any problem with releasing the information before a meeting.
Harrington countered that compiling information requires time.
“Somebody has wasted some valuable time, that’s what’s wrong with it,” she said.
Board member Arthur Cottingham asked the attorneys what their recommendation was.
The attorneys said much of the information is public record and therefore open to the public, but some items were subject to privacy laws.
Robison said he would drop the issue because of the rest of the board’s opposition to it. He apologized for bringing it up.
“I can see that brick wall is harder than my head,” Robison said. “If these four are opposed to it, that’s fine.”
Cottingham suggested the board discuss in a work session other ways to be more transparent to the public.
In other business the board:
• Approved hiring six reading coaches, one for each elementary school and one to work half-time at the middle school and half-time at the high school.
• Approved installing debit card machine at the high school for paying school fees or purchasing items at the school.
• Approved adding a new Spanish teacher to the faculty. The demand for second-year Spanish has gone up as more students are seeking an advanced diploma which requires two years of a language.
• Approved the replacement of the system’s time clocks for no more than $40,000.