City, county grant records access

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Editor's Note: The Andalusia Star-News and its sister publication, the Greenville Advocate participated in the survey. Here is a detailed look at how Covington County's public records were accessible.

How accessible are Alabama's Public Records? In Covington County, they're pretty accessible as proven by a recent survey conducted by reporters, students and volunteers across the state.

The survey, funded by the Alabama Center for Open Government, Alabama Press Association, Alabama Broadcast-ers Association and the Montgomery Advertiser, was conducted March 3-7 of this year. The Andalusia Star-News and several of its sister publications participated in the survey. To truly test the availability of public records - which include, but aren't limited to - police incident/offense reports; sheriff incident/offense reports; county jail logs; city council minutes; county commission minutes; school superintendent's evaluation; and daily college campus crime log; surveyor's did not conduct the survey in their home county.

For example, a reporter from the Greenville Advocate conducted the survey in Andalusia, while a reporter from the Star-News conducted the survey in Luverne.

On a statewide level, the survey found that county commission meeting minutes and city council meeting minutes were among the most accessible public record documents available. And that was true in Covington County as well.

According to the survey, Deborah Spivey, administrative assistant for the City of Andalusia was more than willing to comply with the surveyor's request - even though she did not know the person was conducting an experiment.

The surveyor's notes indicated the following, "By far (Spivey) was the most accommodating of any I visited. (She) had them readily accessible, didn't ask me any questions. She gave them to me without any hesitation at all. Very friendly."

When contacted about this, Spivey was a little surprised at first, which is the reaction many of those surveyed

had, but said it was all part of her job, and the public's right to know.

"I try to remember that I work for the City and, that in turn, means I work for the citizens of Andalusia," Spivey said. "My job is to assist people whether they call on the telephone needing information, or maybe they have a concern they want to discuss - or whether they visit city hall requesting records or information. I realize that as a public servant we have to be careful of the information we give out because of the strict guidelines in the privacy act, but as long as the information requested is considered public information, then anyone should have access to those records. I make ever effort to accommodate our citizens whenever possible."

Spivey wasn't alone in Covington County though when other municipalities were surveyed.

When a surveyor from the Enterprise Ledger approached City Clerk Connie Smith of Opp, Smith complied with the surveyor's request - although it wasn't immediate.

According to the surveyor's notes, Smith new the Alabama Open Records Law and proceeded to tell the surveyor that she was entitled to ask why the surveyor was requesting a copy of the city council minutes, and in fact, stated a good portion the law to the surveyor.

In Florala, the surveyor found another well-educated city employee on Alabama's Open Records Law.

According to the surveyor's notes, the initial person talked to was a former reporter who understood the law, and was easily accommodating of the request.

On a county level, County Administrator Brenda Petty was judicious in providing the requested minutes to the surveyor.

Petty, who knows and understands the law, said the request for commission minutes shouldn't be denied to anyone.

"The Code of Alabama spells it out," she said. "It's public records, and nothing in the commission meeting would be done without the public's knowledge."

Petty also understands why some agencies might be unwilling to hand over public records.

"Privacy issues would be my guess as to why some places wouldn't present the records," she said. "The workers may not understand the law, or they may be concerned about disclosing private information. I try to comply with the law as much as I can, and that means giving the records to those who request them. I think it's good that people are able to know what's going on in their county government, and that people have access to these records."

Although Covington County passed the test with flying colors, other counties weren't so accommodating of the requests.

For instance, in nearby Headland in Henry County, the surveyor discovered obtaining the minutes of the city council wasn't possible.

The surveyor's notes state: "I was told that I could not see the documents without the mayor's approval, because he had the documents. When I first arrived, the mayor was at lunch, and I as told to come back later. I came back in an hour and they mayor was still not in."

The success of obtaining the reports shocked some open records watchdogs.

"I'll have to admit that's pretty darn good," said attorney Dennis Bailey of Media Hotline, which monitors Alabama's open records and open meetings laws, when he was informed of the 92 percent compliance rate among county commissions and 87 percent compliance rate among cities. "I suspect there's some training involved there."

And he's right, according to Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions.

"I'd like to think that's a direct reflection of the training we've done in that area and our hard work has paid off," Sharpless said. "We've encouraged them to provide information the public is entitled to without any hassles."