Exercising your right to know
Public officials ask for many things.
They ask for more money.
They ask for citizen input.
They ask for public support.
But when those tables are turned – when the public asks for something from its leaders – the change in roles can be tricky. No where are those more obvious than in the access to public records and documents throughout our state.
A recent statewide project, the first of its kind, shows a third of those asked to comply with Alabama's public records law failed to do so.
Fortunately, the access problems didn't exist in our area.
Hartselle and Morgan County were good examples of complying with the public records laws. Surveyors said they received all requested materials from the city of Hartselle and Morgan County.
Survey organizers noted access was most often granted in areas where the staff was well trained and versed in the public records laws. Hartselle and Morgan County officials should be commended for their efforts in training their staffs and ensuring the public's rights to these documents.
Alabama law requires public documents, including city council and county commission meeting minutes, police reports, school superintendent performance evaluations, jail logs and university crime blotters be made available to the public.
This law means any Alabama resident has a right to inspect these documents without giving a reason or providing an explanation for their interest. Failure to comply with the public records law is a misdemeanor, though the enforcement of the statutes has been shoddy at best.
Our state must do a better job of enforcing the public records access laws and punishing violators. While it is the right and the moral duty of state residents to become involved in our government, providing the necessary information to citizens is a legal obligation for public officials. If they violate this law, they should be punished.
We also must be vigilant against efforts to erode our public records and open meetings laws, which have been called some of the most inclusive in the nation. Each year, some groups try to change the laws, limiting the public's access to some records. Some of these efforts have been successful.
What we must all do is work to keep these records available and to keep the lines of communication from public official to citizen as free and open as possible.