Our View: Open records should have easy access

Our View

In short: Indefinite deadlines for acquiring public records in Alabama make records effectively no longer public.

Alabama’s public records laws are silent on the timeframe allotted to respond to open records requests. Only 14 other states allow the custodian of the public record to decide how long citizens and media organizations should wait to receive the requested documents.

In some cases, the lack of a deadline amounts to a loophole for hiding public records that should be open.

On Jan. 25, The Crimson White filed an open records request for information involving the now-infamous service trip to Pasadena, Calif., in January. All we wanted was to know why the trip happened and how it was funded.

The requested documents — e-mails, travel vouchers and receipts — are communications between and involving people whose salaries and activities are publicly funded and whose business is done for the public interest.

The day after the request was filed, UA officials indicated that the request was under review.

On March 25, after reminding UA officials of the request, The Crimson White received a response — not the records, we still have not received those — saying the records could not be provided.

It took 59 days to get a, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” In Mississippi, departments without set time limits (up to 14 days) for responding to requests have only one day to respond. UA had the luxury of waiting two months. By that time, the story was old news.

According to a 2008 study by the nonpartisan watchdog Better Government Association, Alabama was ranked 48th in the United States in government integrity and dead last in freedom of information, mostly due to the lack of a deadline for answering open records requests. States received some credit for simply having a law on the books stating that requests be answered “in a reasonable amount of time,” but Alabama lacks even that.

The University’s failure to respond in a reasonable amount of time is a poor reflection on both the University and the state’s open records laws. The delay would be illegal in 35 states, with good reason.

Not only did the information become, in that time, less valuable to The Crimson White and the UA community, it gave the appearance of a potential for unethical treatment of records.

The delay is an issue by itself, but the lack of records in the end is even more significant.

Personal e-mails between SGA leaders may be difficult to sort through for matters of public concern, but receipts and other records of expenditures made using public funds should not be difficult to find and copy.

Just as the people of the state of Alabama have a right to know what their representatives in Montgomery are spending tax dollars on, so do students at the University of Alabama have a right to know what their SGA leaders are spending their tax and tuition dollars.

If the University and the SGA can hide these records behind indefinite deadlines, how can UA students be expected to trust those who spend their money?

Managing Editor Alan Blinder, who reported about the SGA’s activities in Pasadena, Calif., recused himself from this editorial.