Whether or not you consider yourself a music lover, it is my fervent hope that at least as much as your enthusiasm manifests for Chopin or Cardi B, you find yourself also a devotee of open government. Not as enticing nor as pleasing to the ear I’ll admit, but being able to keep an eye on our elected leaders is at least equal in importance to our lives as relaxing music. Worryingly my recent encounter with the City of Montgomery’s public records request procedure struck quite a discordant tone.
Alabama has one of the most comprehensive and simple open records laws in the country, but it has no teeth. Years of misguided court rulings, confusing AG opinions and outright disregard for the law by government officials have watered it down so much that far too many Alabamians don’t look at public records as their property, but as secret information they have to pay for the privilege of seeing, if they can get hands on it at all.
Though it is far from unique in this regard, the City of Montgomery burdens the public with a $5 minimum charge and a $1 per page (that is to say $0.50 per half page) fee for copies of public records. The state law allows for reasonable copy fees, but “reasonable” is the quintessential weasel-word that is abused worse than West Virginian orphans with alcoholic foster parents.
The city wants your money first, before they bother to fill the request. It is the first thing mentioned on the web page detailing the request procedure; and it is printed in red so it must be important. They even want to charge you for city employee’s time in finding the records you want to review, even if you don’t need a copy. According to the policy: for non-routine requests, a charge will be assessed based on the actual cost of production. Now “non-routine” could mean anything. This means that if a city employee takes an hour to find your information they could charge you the equivalent of one hour’s pay for that employee.
Suppose your request is routine and you don’t even want their copy as you have your smartphone to photograph the record. Well the policy clearly states, again in red and also in all caps: TAKING PICTURES WILL NOT BE PERMITTED. In the immortal words of philosopher Mick Jagger, you can’t get no satisfaction. That means that obtaining a copy of a routine record which literally costs the city nothing is forbidden. No good reason is given for this because no good reason exists any more than does a top 40 hit by Yanni.
Now why am I being cute with all these music references? You should know that the city is planning to shell out $180,000 for a smooth jazz festival this fall. They actually want the county commission to come up with another $120,000 (read Drew Martin’s report about that here). I’m all for smooth jazz, but it is my opinion that if the city can find that kind of money for a music festival, which falls outside my definition of essential city services, we can waive most of these records fees and allow the public easy access to the records they own. City government is not supposed to be a money making enterprise. Having access to public records is an essential service and we should just prepare to write this off as the cost of doing business.
The City of Montgomery, just like every other city in the state, is authorized to charge a “reasonable” fee for copies of public records. But just because they can does not mean they should. Paying $20 or more for a copy of a lengthy public document is not a problem for our business, but it is an unnecessary barrier to the general public, who only wants access to the records they already own.