For the record
Survey shows county, city complying with public records laws
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series examining Alabama's public records and open meeting laws.
First in a series
Leada DeVaney, Hartselle Enquirer
Every so often, someone will come to Hartselle City Hall and request a copy of city council minutes.
When that happens, City Clerk Rita Lee goes to the vault where the minutes are held and then gives them to the person making the request. They can either take notes by hand or make a photocopy of the records for 50 cents a page.
"It doesn't happen too often, usually just when there is a controversial issue," Lee said. "When someone does make the request, we hand them over."
By doing so, Lee and the city are complying with Alabama's public records laws. Compliance with those laws has been highlighted in recent weeks through a series of articles by The Associated Press about access to public records throughout the state.
The articles, followed a statewide project by the Alabama Center for Open Government, the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, reporters from throughout the state, students and volunteers. Participants, including representatives from the Hartselle Enquirer, went to each county and some 189 cities in March to request the records. Survey participants requested minutes from county commission and city council meetings, the front page of police and sheriffs' incident reports, county jail logs, school superintendent evaluations and, where applicable, university crime reports. Those making the requests did not identify themselves as being from any certain organization.
Alabama law does not require someone to identify themselves or give a reason why they are requesting any public records.
According to the survey, the city of Hartselle, Hartselle Police Department and Hartselle City Schools complied with all requests. Morgan County, Morgan County Board of Education and the Morgan County Sheriff's Office also complied.
Lee said the city operates under the policy of access to all public records.
"We don't have any problem letting the people see the records," she said. "Sometimes, if someone is asking for receipts or something it can take a little while, but most of the time things are right there."
Alabama law requires requests for records to be filled in a "reasonable time." The law does not define "reasonable."
Lee said not all items are included in the minutes, however.
"We don't take minutes from work sessions because there is no official action being taken," she said. "And, all of the comments happen at a council meetings aren't included in the minutes. We just include the official actions taken."
Lee said the city also keeps a copy of its budget at the front desk so that anyone can come to city hall and view it.
While the survey showed Hartselle as compliant with the public records law, it revealed an array of problems in other parts of the state.
According to ALCOG, a third of government officials asked to produce records failed to comply.
In most instances, city council and commission meeting minutes were available. However, surveyors had some problems getting police and university crime reports and even greater difficulty viewing school superintendent evaluations.
Violating Alabama's public record law is a misdemeanor that could bring a maximum sentence of a year in jail. However, according to ALCOG, that punishment has never been used.