Senate passes bill to add timely response to records requests

Published 1:28 pm Friday, May 12, 2023

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A bill to put time requirements in the state’s open records law passed the Senate Thursday with a unanimous vote, 33-0. The bill, SB196, was sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and would require a public officer to acknowledge receipt of a request for open records no more than 10 business days after receiving it. The officer would then have no more than 20 days after the request to give a response, which could come in several different ways:

  • Provide access to the records at a mutually agreed place and time during normal business hours.
  • Give an estimate of the costs for copying and producing the records.
  • Deny the request in full.
  • Grant the request in part and deny it in part. That could be because the records requested fall under an exception to the public records law. Or it could be because the agency does not have the records.

If it takes longer than 20 days to respond to the request, the public officer could provide an estimate of the additional time needed, which could be up to 45 days, plus 15 days to determine whether a record is sensitive or otherwise nonpublic information. If the request is denied in whole or in part, they have to identify the subject matter of the withheld records and the reason. 

Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason told the bill would be a good first step toward strengthening the state’s open meetings law.

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“The idea was to get some time limit in the law,” said Mason, who has been executive director of APA for 35 years. “It’s not perfect, I will tell you, but it’s certainly better than where we are now.”

Alabama was ranked last in responsiveness to requests for records in a 2019 study by a researcher at the University of Arizona. Gov. Kay Ivey issued an executive order in January calling for state executive branch agencies to be more responsive to records requests and setting timelines for communication to people requesting them. 

The bill now moves on to the House, and if approved is expected to be signed into law by Ivey.