Sunshine Week has come and gone.
Each March, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sponsor the weeklong event to highlight the need for open and accountable government.
Sunshine matters because, as The Washington Post recently adopted as a slogan, democracy dies in darkness.
So, what’s the open-government weather been like in our region over recent months? Here are a few highlights.
BENTLEY’S REFUGEE BAN: Following terrorists attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared Syrian refugees would not be allowed to settle in the state. The Star’s series of open-records requests of government officials’ emails detailed how the governor came to his decision and how after stating the policy his staff then began assembling a case for such a ban.
One important item discovered in the emails was a note on the night of the attacks from Spencer Collier, who was then the head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. “I have briefed Gov. Bentley and there are no known immediate threats to Alabama or the homeland,” Collier wrote to the governor’s staff.
The following day, a Saturday, Bentley declared his no-Syrian refugees stance and followed up with an executive order, one that was quite similar to an order Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office emailed to the Bentley team earlier, email records showed.
FERVENT FEEDBACK: An Anniston Star request of emails sent to Jindal’s office following the Paris attacks showed a panicked public.
An Inverness, Fla., resident wrote Jindal, “We do not want Syrian refugees in the U.S.!”
Many of the messages reflected fears over an urban legend that thousands of refugees were pouring into New Orleans at the same time as the attacks.
The tone was much the same in messages sent to Florida Gov. Rick Scott. A Star records request showed emails to Scott that labeled Syrian refugees as “miscreant cockroaches” or a “disease.”
“Death to all Islam now now now,” one emailer wrote Scott.
BATHROOM TALK: In April 2016, the Oxford City Council weighed in on a controversial transgender bathroom debate. The city voted to limit public bathroom access citywide according to a person’s sex at birth.
Email conversations among council members demonstrated how the policy was formed, how the public reacted and how the city’s politicians eventually repealed the ordinance.
“Be not deceived! God is not mocked,” Mike Henderson, a councilman, wrote to his city council colleagues regarding trans-friendly business policies. “These corporations one day will reap the wrath of an almighty God!”
Following passage of the law, council members heard from both sides.
“Your new ordinance about bathroom usage has been a huge embarrassment for our community,” an Oxford resident wrote in an email. “We will be putting our home on historic Main Street for sale and moving elsewhere.”
Another resident wrote, “Thank you for taking a stand against immorality.”
Following pressure from the Ohio Valley Conference, which had suggested it might pull its conference softball tournament from the city, the Oxford council reversed course. Council President Steven Waits succinctly emailed his colleagues how that meeting would go: “Prayer ... pledge .... ordinance ... adjourn.”
ER CONTRACTS: In 2016, Regional Medical Center announced it had outsourced its emergency room services to an independent contractor.
RMC’s attorney rebuffed The Star’s request to see a copy of the contract, saying its release would be “detrimental to the public.” The Alabama Press Association’s legal counsel disagreed, telling The Star, “In my opinion the law requires the board to release the contract with only those specific portions of the contract they claim are anti-competitive redacted rather than asking the newspaper to guess at what it contains and otherwise withhold it in its entirety.”
The story didn’t end there. RMC eventually revealed parts of the contract, which was worth $1.26 million a year.
The Star asked other state public hospitals that outsourced ER operations for copies of their contracts. One, Washington County Hospital in southwest Alabama, promptly released its contract.
The responses from the rest ranged from bad to even worse. Opelika’s East Alabama Medical Center, Tuscaloosa’s DCH Regional Medical Center and Prattville Baptist Hospital declined to show us copies of their ER contracts. Despite numerous follow-ups seeking a response, officials from public hospitals in Dothan, Brewton and Ozark ignored our request. Not a no. Not a yes. Just nothing.
None of these cases reveal a scandalous smoking gun. They do, however, show the value of sunshine laws and journalists who use them to inform citizens about the workings of their government.
Bob Davis is editor and publisher of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis