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Bob Davis: Taking aim at open government

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Open records

When we last visited the next step in improving Alabama’s open-government laws, state lawmakers were challenged to use a 2013 gun law as a model of better informing the public — the people they were elected to serve.

We are in the third month of the 2018 session of the state Legislature and, alas, nothing has happened on this vital front.

It’s not too late, though, and the end of Sunshine Week should be enough of a convincer.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s define some terms.

Sunshine Week promotes freedom of information and is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It concluded Saturday, though, if done properly, every week could be Sunshine Week when it comes to state government.

The gun law in question was created in 2013. It mandated that people could carry firearms into government buildings such as libraries, rec centers and museums. Among the exceptions were courthouses and police stations.

Another part of the law required the attorney general to look into citizen complaints that the law isn’t being followed. It works like this: (1.) Citizens file a report to the AG’s office claiming they are barred from carrying at a government building, say a library or museum or community center. (2.) Staffers from the office of the attorney general look into the details of the complaint, typically reaching out to the administrators of the building in question. (3.) If the building should allow the carrying of firearms, state attorneys convince the local government to reverse its no-guns policy. (4.) Either way, the attorney general informs the public of its finding.

A late December announcement from Attorney General Steve Marshall found:

-- Birmingham’s Southern Museum of Flight can ban firearms “because it actively excludes unauthorized persons from entry and requires the purchase of an admission ticket to enter.”

-- Multiple prohibitions by the City of Auburn were ruled improper. City officials noted the city “has not enforced this ordinance and will not do so in the future.”

-- The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries prohibition of firearms at the Montgomery State Farmers Market was not allowed. The AG outlined the fine points of the law and officials from the Department of Agriculture and Industries “removed the signs prohibiting firearms.”

-- The Huntsville Hospital Health System’s banning of firearms from a facility that is in part used to treat people with “psychiatric, mental and emotional disorders” is within the bounds of law because guns can be prohibited “[i]nside a facility which provides inpatient or custodial care of those with psychiatric, mental or emotional disorders,” according to the attorney general.

You get the point. A citizen thinks the government is out of line. The state’s law-enforcement arm checks it out and either persuades the government agency or body to mend its ways, or determines the complaint is misguided and there’s no need to intervene.

So imagine something similar for government records. The current method for forcing a state or local government agency to comply with open-records laws is through the civil courts, a route that is usually time-consuming and expensive. Gun-rights activists are not required to jump through these sorts of hoops. Citizens seeking information about county commission meetings, arrest reports or budget line-items deserve a similar system of government accountability.

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