Bill aims to beef up Alabama public records law

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Making sure that local and state government operates in the open instead of behind closed doors is key to keeping leaders accountable. A new state bill aims to improve transparency in our government.

Journalists often file open records requests to help the public better understand government, public schools, and public safety agencies. After all, they're using your taxpayer dollars and making decisions that affect your everyday life. Senate Bill 237 aims to solidify rules that allow access to internal documents, offering insight into personnel, policy and spending decisions that impact our every day lives.

WHNT News 19 filed a request for the body camera video of an officer-involved shooting following the murder indictment of Huntsville Police Officer William Darby. Our request was ultimately denied by the city of Huntsville due to the pending criminal case.

An open records request helped us obtain the personnel file of Roland Campos, a veteran Madison County investigator charged with sex abuse. His personnel file confirmed that the sheriff's office had previously requested a similar investigation into Campos nine years before he was charged.

We are currently working to get details of a settlement agreement between chemical manufacturing giant 3M and the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority. We filed an official open records request for the terms. We're told we will receive it soon.

You also have the ability to file these types of requests. Central Alabama Senator Cam Ward is seeking to make the process more efficient and cost-effective.

SB 237 would require public agencies to respond to requests within five days. It would also set a 10 cents per page charge for black and white copies. If passed, the bill would establish a public access counselor. The public access counselor would review appeals when disagreements between those requesting documents and public agencies come up.

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon says the bill's future first depends on the Senate.

"At the end of the day the legislature as a whole is all about transparency," said McCutcheon. "I mean the more we can be transparent in open meeting laws, the more that we can support those initiatives then we'll be supportive of that. But at the end of the day, we're going to see what that bill does in the Senate."

The open records bill is currently in the Senate governmental affairs committee. It's not clear if and when there may be a vote on it. Some government agencies have expressed concerns that the bill could be too much for smaller agencies to handle.

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