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State open records bill clears Senate committee

MONTGOMERY — Legislation to strengthen Alabama’s open records law and create penalties for government agencies that don’t comply in a timely manner cleared a Senate committee on Wednesday.

But Republicans, Democrats and bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said more work is needed before the legislation gets a full Senate vote.

“We’re 51st in the country on this issue … we can do better,” Orr told his colleagues about the current law that does not specify a response timeline or set fees for records requests filed by citizens and members of the media.

After a public hearing Tuesday morning, Orr said he’d continue to work with groups who expressed opposition to his bill, including the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

The bill is supported by the Alabama Press Association and the Alabama League of Women Voters.

Scott Duff, news director at WSFA-12 in Montgomery, said some agencies respond to requests promptly. But others don’t and the only recourse is a lawsuit.

“Under the current law, there is no consistency,” he told lawmakers.

Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the press association, said the bill does four things: Requires a response time to public records requests, creates reasonable fees, creates an administrative remedy if agencies don’t respond and sets penalties for withholding records without justification.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said the bill does more than those four things and asked if it could be pared down. He said some small agencies don’t have the staff or technology to meet the bill’s requirements.

“We’re setting some of these people up to fail,” Smitherman said.

He and other Democrats on the committee asked Orr to pledge to continue to work with groups opposed to portions of the bill.

“Already there,” Orr said.

A representative from the probate judges’ association said it worked with Orr on an amendment, adopted Wednesday, and is not in opposition to the bill.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the county association, asked lawmakers to consider the number of constituent emails they receive. He said Orr’s bill would make local government officials turn over all emails they receive from constituents if requested. He said it’d be a time-consuming process.

Bailey said the bill does not change what’s considered public record.

The bill passed 9-1. Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, cast the “no” vote. Givhan said he’s supportive of the press and believes there needs to be more coverage of public meetings. But he has a number of concerns about the bill including small towns’ ability to promptly reply to requests. He also said the bill would make agencies respond to requests from “anyone in the world,” and it should be limited to Alabama citizens and organizations.

Committee members voting for the bill were: Sens. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia; Tom Whatley, R-Auburn; Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road; Greg Albritton, R-Range; Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham; Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, Smitherman and Orr.

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