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Bob Davis: A sunshine law model to follow

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Oxford City Hall

Oxford's City Hall, on Hamric Drive East.

Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/file

The Oxford City Council’s secretive budget process last month is a reminder of something that should be on state government’s to-do list.

As Oxford worked on its 2018 budget, details that council members pondered were hidden from the public until the night the spending plan went up for a vote. This stands in opposition to open-records law and court precedent.

What’s the public to do? A citizen seeking details on how the city planned to spend taxpayer dollars would have to go to civil court, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.

A solution already exists, and it has been tested in Alabama.

A 2013 Alabama gun law expanded the places where people could carry firearms, including government buildings such as libraries, rec centers and museums. (By the way, there are exceptions, such as courthouses and police departments.)

One part of the law established an appeals process for Alabamians who believed they were improperly barred from openly carrying firearms inside such public spaces. A citizen can lodge a complaint with the Alabama attorney general, whose office is directed to investigate, seek resolution and then make the findings public.

For example, in April someone complained to the AG that the town of Southside in Etowah County posted a sign banning firearms from its softball complex. The office of the attorney general looked into the matter, then reached out to Southside officials to inform them that, under state law, firearms are allowed at a town-owned recreational field.

According to a synopsis posted on the AG’s website in late June, Southside has “purposely obscured the language regarding the prohibition on firearms, and that it is in the process of replacing the sign to omit the language regarding a prohibition on firearms. The Attorney General has determined that no further action is required.”

The matter was resolved without anyone having to go to court, once the staff in the office of the attorney general explained the relevant portion of the law to local government officials. Also consider the timeline: to go from complaint to correction in only two months is blazingly fast when compared to the slow pace of the civil courts.

With a Second Amendment-tinged law under the supervision of the Alabama attorney general, it’s time to consider something similar for the First Amendment protections and the public’s right to know what its government is doing.

The Legislature won’t need to write a new law. The current open-records provision is perfectly clear: “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.”

What’s needed is a legislative directive requiring the AG to collect citizens’ complaints regarding open records, examine the validity of the petition and take whatever action is necessary. Call it a better method of ensuring that local governments live up to this important part of democracy.

Bob Davis is editor and publisher of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: EditorBobDavis