In Marion County, a group of citizens have gotten court action on Bevill State Community College that the Alabama Press Association is touting as a great victory for open records. Circuit Court Judge …
In Marion County, a group of citizens have gotten court action on Bevill State Community College that the Alabama Press Association is touting as a great victory for open records.
Circuit Court Judge James Anderson ordered Bevill State and the Alabama Community College System to provide a cost estimate for printing out records to a group of citizens called the BSCC-Hamilton Campus Legislative Advisory Task Force for Education (named that way because a now ousted legislator put it together himself). The citizens are trying to determine how the college decided to drop courses at Hamilton, which were later reinstated. However, they fear that college officials illegally ignored a six-year process in the Code of Alabama to make those decisions (with a three-year monitoring phase and a three-year phase-out process) and that they could come back to drop the courses again - and that they really want to torpedo the whole campus.
The Journal Record in Hamilton, whose managing general manager (my former boss) is on the committee, was noting that the Daily Mountain Eagle reported that at a Sumiton Campus town hall meeting to discuss the cutbacks - the only one, as the other campus meetings were canceled and the courses reinstated - that Bevill State President Kim Emis said, “We’ve done an in-depth study of our data - every program that we offer. We haven’t made any decision that didn’t have data to support those decisions.”
So no one has been able to see a report. A half-page summary was given to us and the folks in Marion County. State Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield (who also represents part of Winston County) has asked to see more and he even abstained on the Education Budget as officials dragged on. So when the citizens filed a court suit to get the study and any data used in the decision making process, lawyers for Bevill filed to prevent the records from being released, saying the citizens only wanted to harass the college, and even got the hearings moved to Montgomery.
At a June 17 hearing - I’ve seen the transcript - a lawyer for Bevill and the college system, Roger Bates, denied a plan to close the Hamilton Campus. Then he said the records involved five years of computer enrollment data. And I loved the next quote from Bates, which the Journal Record also related in its June 26 edition.
“It’s rems of documents which, quite honestly, if I gave every bit of that data to Mr. (Tony Glenn, the citizens’ attorney), he nor any of his clients, could even interpret that data — you have to be be schooled in this,” he said. You can imagine what the reaction to that one was.
Then, after another defendant attorney, Tracy Davis, earlier said, apparently referring to the half page summary, “They have been given a study. They didn’t like what they got,” Bates said there never was a study (noun) but that they studied (verb) the situation, so that there is not a report to give them. That caused a near meltdown in court right then.
Bates said the data could run 500 to 1,000 pages, that it could be produced in 10 days, and that it might cost like 50 cents a page, and Glenn said his side was willing to pay.
However, Bates said, “Here’s my concern about this: We’re walking a thin line between trying to turn over management of a college to a community-based group that lacks standing to be in this court through using the guise of a freedom for the Open Records Act decision. And I’m very concerned about that, and I know the chancellor is and I know the board is. These people cannot manage the college.” Glenn denied that and the judge seemed skeptical, suggesting Bates get a price for the printing, which Bates said he would.
Glenn afterward said, “We have people capable of interpreting those documents,” He added it doesn’t matter, because they are public records and the public is entitled to see them.
Meanwhile, Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason told the Hamilton newspaper the decision in court was “a win across the board” for public access to government information and applauded the actions of the citizens, noting the ruling will be used as a legal tool in the future.
“The law is clear. The intent is that the entire deliberative process be open to the public. That process is important to know how a government body reached a decision. Just knowing the outcome is important, but it is more important to know the process used to arrive at a decision. The taxpayers and the public deserve to know that. There are situations that are deemed more complicated than others, but that is no reason not to release the information.”
I’m quite sure there are public officials in Walker County who should be aware of this intent and that it is perfectly legal to find out the process of how they made their decisions as well. Government decision making is not the exclusive intellectual property of a government official. It is not just the decision that the public deserves to know, but how that decision was made. That is why I and other reporters ask questions and ask for documents at government board meetings.
Hopefully, Bevill State and the college system has learned that lesson now as well.