Public documents should not be hard to get

Posted

Let's clean out the notebook...

• I noticed that Sumiton Mayor Petey Ellis is denying that the City of Sumiton tried to get around gun laws by leasing temporary spaces — in the form of a temporary business license — for people selling merchandise at the Frog Festival. I'll let the courts settle that matter — that is not my concern here. 

BamaCarry, as part of its concerns, has sued, saying Ellis did not respond to the group's requests for public records, including documents related to any leases at past or future Frog Festivals, documents related to public notices, documents of all tax incentives, tax abatements, grants, or other economic incentives to benefit private individuals related to the festival and minutes of meetings about the requested items. 

Ellis says temporary spaces were rented out as temporary business licenses, something that BamaCarry indicates may be been used to get around the gun laws. Again, I don't want to get in the weeds. 

Back up to the point that BamaCarry asked for public records, including minutes of meetings, and didn't get them. Rick Watson's story didn't indicate any indications about why Ellis hasn't responded to a public record request. 

This has already attracted interest elsewhere, as AL.com columnist Kyle Whitmire did a column on it. 

"Alabama’s Open Records Act says every citizen is entitled to inspect public records and take copies upon request. But as the folks at BamaCarry have now learned, it’s never so simple. The gun rights group is now suing the City of Sumiton for public records it requested but never received," he said. 

He said BamaCarry asked to see these records first in October - and then again in January. And they heard nothing. And Whitmire points out that is a current problem with the state's open record laws, as today the law only says a government has a "reasonable" amount of time to respond. Four months seems way more than reasonable to me, but it hasn't happened, apparently. 

Whitmire noted, "Too often, local governments and state agencies interpret 'reasonable' to mean 'not until you’ve paid a lawyer to sue us.'" Apparently, BamaCarry seemed to catch on to that. 

It shouldn't be that way. I had a candidate talk to me the other day lamenting that they had requested but could not get a copy of the budget of the government they were looking for. I said, I've got one, sitting right here on my desk. (And, yes, I should have filed it by now.) This person came by, borrowed it to copy (it was an inch thick) and brought it back. That was simple enough. I don't know all the circumstances, but I know it should not be that hard. 

(Then again, it shouldn't be that hard to get debates or forums together at election time. I had  one candidate in each of the other local non-judicial races who stalled and wouldn't even return calls. So the only such event where we will get all the candidates together are in District 3. )

Government officials at all level talk about transparency and openness, and helping the people. The truth is, public documents are not easy to get sometimes. An effort by newspapers in the state a few years ago went to local governments in Alabama and made simple requests, like meeting minutes. In some cases, you would think we asked for the queen's crown jewels.

I have to say that regardless of how you feel on the gun issue, we should all be able to ask for public documents without having to get an attorney - and to get material in a timely manner. If it is a large request, it might take longer, but it shouldn't take this long. And that is where the Legislature needs to give a timeline, as "reasonable" is not reasonable sometimes, in a common sense viewpoint. 

• Secretary of State John Merrill has given a clarification on the STAR IDs in relation to showing photo ID at the polling booth this year. Effective Oct. 1, 2020,  every air traveler will need a STAR ID drivers license or another form of identification for domestic air travel. (They are also going to be needed eventually for entering federal buildings and other security needs.) Frankly, it is not that hard and you don't know where you might have to go, so I would go ahead and get one. 

However, Merrill wants to make sure you know the STAR ID itself is not needed to get to the polling booth. In fact, other photo ID can be used instead of a driver's license, including a state photo ID if necessary, but your driver's license is fine as it is for the polls. 

• Speaking of the elections, I noticed there was finally an independent poll, from Alabama Daily News, showing a sampling of 400 people on Feb. 4-6. Jeff Sessions had 31 percent, while Tommy Tubberville had 29 percent and Bradley Byrne had 17 percent. I think the Sessions people feel that is a small sample, but you will remember Tuberville felt he was slightly behind Sessions. So now get ready, as we will probably see a barrage of TV commercials to close the deal on March 3, and, yes, it will get ugly. 

• For those concerned about the roads, I got to sit down for about an hour with County Engineer Mike Short the other day and get a good rundown of what the situation with roads are in the county. I thought he was as good as I could get for a knowledgable, non-elected voice. The good news is that the Rebuild Alabama program is not a one-year program, but will be ongoing with revenue to increase some in the future. The bad news is there is a lot to do to catch up - and yes, it is expensive. But I will have that story out soon. 

• I had a good time listening to Mike McKenzie of Alabama Public Television at the Rotary Club of Jasper this week. I didn't realize how extensive their educational programs were, or how involved their facilities are with emergency statewide communications when they are needed. 

It is true that APT, like other services, are as much digital now as anything else. I personally watch a lot of programming now on Roku; as I recall, I think I watched most of the "Country Music" documentary that way, as many of the episodes came out online at once. McKenzie got a laugh when he made fun of smartphones years ago for having video, as that seemed like such a waste of time. Now he brings up "Nova" on the phone and watches it while he does the dishes. (Frankly, "Capitol Journal" would be great to do that way, because it usually is pretty much talking heads and the audio suffices most of the time.)

• I was impressed with meeting Mike Neuendorf, the new chief executive officer for Walker Baptist Medical Center, who is also in charge at Princeton. He seems personable and concerned on first glance, and easy to talk to. I could tell he still loves flying, and if the Shelby County Airport was closer or they had a helicopter, he would use that instead of driving. But I could tell the other administrative staff like him, and I think he gets the point that he needs to be involved in the local community. We'll see how he does, but I think he is saying and reacting in the right way so far. It is disappointing that we don't have the leader all the time on the hospital campus, but Bevill State Community College has proven such an arrangement can be had in going between four campuses. 

• I would like to thank everyone for being patient over the past couple of weeks as I have had drainage issues like other people. I spent four hours in urgent care a couple of Sundays ago, as so many flu and sinus cases were crammed into the building. I didn't have the flu or pneumonia, but they gave me a 10-day supply of twice-a-day antibiotics designed to knock the serious stuff out. We'll see if it does; I still know people who have had sinus problems since Christmas, and I don't know to yet if early spring allergies are a cause. But it got pretty bad for me last week, to the point I was pretty froggy and went home early without doing a column. I've been in catch up mode since, and now we are getting earnest (at long last) on the elections, which have been fairly quiet this time but seem to be getting more active at the end. 

Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle's news editor.