Alabama Senate approves bill setting timelines for responses to public records requests

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Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, hands a resolution to legislative staff in the Alabama Senate on April 18, 2024 at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Senate approved a bill Thursday that would require state agencies to acknowledge and respond to public records requests within a certain time frame.

SB 270, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would set a 10-day deadline for agencies to acknowledge standard requests. The office would have a 15-day deadline to approve or deny the standard request. 

“Right now, the current law is the Wild West,” Orr said during debate on Thursday. “We don’t have timelines for governments or universities to respond in due time.”

Alabama’s current public records law does not include timelines for responses, meaning that agencies can legally ignore requests for public records. It takes an average of 188 days for state agencies to respond to open records requests, according to MuckRock, a nonprofit organization that focuses on open government. The organization says there is only a 16.29% success rate for obtaining public records.

Gov. Kay Ivey last year issued an executive order requiring state agencies to respond to requests within a certain period of time. But Ivey or a future governor could revoke that at any time.

Under Orr’s legislation, an agency could extend response times by 15 days provided it gives proper notice. Agencies also have adjusted the timelines for “time-intensive” requests. 

The bill passed 29-0 after a substitute was adopted.

The substitute says that there is a “rebuttable presumption that a proper standard request has been denied” if a substantive response is not provided for a regular request within 30 business days or 60 calendar days; or if the public records are not produced 30 business days or 60 calendar days. Orr said in a phone call Thursday afternoon that lawsuits could be filed after this timeline.

Some senators asked about exceptions to the bill.

Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, asked about limitations in the legislation. The senator said a a volunteer fire department faced “harassing requests” during litigation from a nearby landowner.

“I’m just looking for some assurances that what you’ve got there will help protect those folks from harassing requests,” he said.

Orr said there were limitations around “frivolous requests,” which he defined as overly broad or overly time consuming.

The bill does not allow the public to see every public record. 

Sen. Keith Kelley, R-Anniston, told Orr he had concern that footage from body cameras worn by law enforcement officers would be included in the bill. 

“I had a call just a few minutes ago from a police chief that was very concerned about the body cam footage being viewed as public record,” he said.

Orr said that body camera footage was not included in the bill.

The City of Huntsville received the “Golden Padlock” Award in 2022 for failing to release body camera footage after police shot and killed a man who was suffering suicidal ideation. The award recognizes secretive governments and is from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

The bill moves to the House of Representatives.

The post Alabama Senate approves bill setting timelines for responses to public records requests appeared first on Alabama Reflector.