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Survey finds many officials fail to comply with records release laws

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    NMU         ALABAMA         Freedom of Information    

Survey finds many officials fail to comply with records release laws

  • A statewide survey shows that county commissions are most likely to comply with open record requests, while half of all sheriffs’ departments denied requests for incident reports that are public under state law.

June 5, 2003 — The oldest open records law on the Alabama books makes jail logs available to the public without exception, but even a century of longevity comes with a one-third failure rate, according to a statewide open records survey released June 1.

“The number of sheriffs who refused access to the jail logs was higher than I imagined given the clarity of the law,” Birmingham media attorney Gilbert Johnston said. “Perhaps their view of law enforcement and public security is so much of their focus that they tend to overlook other considerations of democracy.”

Overall, nearly seven of 10 governmental agencies complied with state open records law during the March survey by Alabama news organizations, students and volunteers. The surveyors requested public records in all 67 counties, 189 cities and towns, 91 school districts and 12 colleges and universities.

Surveyors made a total of 662 requests for police and sheriff incident reports, county jail logs, city council and county commission minutes, school superintendents’ performance evaluations and daily campus crime log.

The county commissions and city councils surveyed had the highest compliance rates, providing meeting minutes 92 percent and 87 percent of the time, respectively. School districts were least likely to comply. Only 30 percent of those surveyed provided superintendent performance evaluations, though 24 percent said no evaluation had been done in their district.

Half of the sheriffs’ departments and 37 percent of police departments surveyed rejected requests for the crime logs. That’s despite a 1999 attorney general’s opinion that the front page of incident and offense reports should be available for public inspection. About 17 percent of campus police surveyed did not comply with a federal law to make university crime logs public.

The discrepancy between high compliance levels at county commissions and low compliance at sheriff departments is attributable to training, said Edward Mullins, co-chairman of the Alabama Center for Open Government. The state’s Association of County Commissions trains staff about public records while sheriff and police departments do not have a similar collective training effort, he said.

In addition to public records training, Alabama law lacks effective sanctions that give public officials incentives to comply with open record requests, Mullins said. An Alabama law that deals with tampering with records possibly could apply to denials of open record requests, but the law has never been used.

“We need a little more teeth in our laws,” Mullins said. “If an official knows it might cost him money or jail time for breaking the law, then he’s more likely to comply.”

Most surveyors received computer printouts or photocopies. A few surveyors copied records by hand. At least 113 municipalities in the state have Web sites and most disclose some public records online.

The cost for records ranged from free to $10 with an average cost per page of 98 cents. Many police departments charged $5 for a copy of a one-page incident report. Wetumpka Police Department Chief William Pertree defended the $5 fee as necessary to cover reproduction costs, but also said the fee discouraged requests for copies.

A $5 fee for a one-page report is out of line with what other public entities charge, Dennis Bailey, attorney for the Alabama Press Association told The Associated Press.

“It’s fairly obvious a public agency cannot set the charge to keep people from obtaining records,” Bailey said.

The Alabama Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Alabama Center for Open Government, Alabama Broadcasters Association and Alabama Press Association conducted the survey during March.

KH


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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