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High court rules public corporations subject to records law

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    News Media Update         ALABAMA         Freedom of Information    

High court rules public corporations subject to records law

  • The Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that the Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Talladega is subject to the state’s Open Records Act, rejecting the board’s arguments that it is not covered by the law.

Jan. 27, 2004 — Public corporations created by municipalities to perform such functions as water and sewer service are subject to the state’s Open Records Act, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled Jan. 16.

Following an executive session yesterday, the Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Talladega said it would seek a rehearing.

In July 2002, The (Talladega) Daily Home sought records from the board for a story on the theft of $91,000 from the board, which resulted in the termination of three employees. The board denied the request, claiming it was not subject to the state Open Records Act because it was a public corporation.

The Supreme Court of Alabama had ruled on Feb. 1, 2002, in Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Selma v. Randolph, that the state’s open meetings law did not apply to public corporations.

Public corporations are authorized by the Alabama legislature to allow municipalities to finance utility improvements while avoiding legal limits on how much debt they can accrue and while also shielding them from debt obligations. The board operates out of Talladega City Hall, and the city council selects its members.

The newspaper filed suit for the documents in Circuit Court in Talladega. In 2002, Judge Jerry Fielding ruled that the board is subject to the Open Records Act, but that some of the documents are exempt from disclosure as “pending criminal investigation” records and sensitive personnel records. Both the newspaper and the board appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the Open Records Act applies to the board.

“Because the Water Board has the qualities of an agency of the City of Talladega, we hold that its employees are public officers and servants of the City of Talladega for purposes of the Open Records Act,” Justice Harold F. See wrote. “Therefore, the records of the Water Board that are reasonably necessary to record the business and activities required to be done or carried on by the Water Board employees are public writings and must be disclosed to the public pursuant to the terms of the Open Records Act so that the status or condition of such business and activities can be known by our citizens.”

The court applied a balancing test to determine if the sensitive personnel records should be disclosed under the act. The court ruled that an employee’s right to an unbiased disciplinary hearing outweighs the public’s right to know, but that once the disciplinary process is completed the balance shifts and the documents must be disclosed.

The court also questioned whether the trial court had properly applied the pending criminal investigation exemption, and ordered the trial court to reexamine the issue.

(The Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Talladega v. Consolidated Publishing; Media Counsel: Dennis Bailey, Rushton, Stakely, Johnston & Garrett, P.A., Montgomery) GP


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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