Talk about a trip down memory lane. I’d nearly forgotten about this episode involving an Anniston Star open-records request and an $1,800 bill.
Here are the basics:
In early 2010, we requested the past three month’s worth of emails from the city-operated accounts belonging to Anniston’s four councilmen and mayor. We should stop here and note that this request made under Alabama’s open-records law is uncontroversial. The law reads, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” Open-and-shut case.
Our request had a few specifics. We asked for the emails to be delivered in electronic form, and sent special email addresses we set up for this purpose. Most importantly, we wrote, “We do NOT request printouts of the material.”
Imagine the newsroom’s surprise when, after a delay of several weeks, City Manager Don Hoyt delivered to us 818 printed-out pages of emails and a bill for $1,855.40, which sought to collect money for the printouts (50 cents a copy), a lawyer’s expertise and even Hoyt’s time spent examining the documents.
We asked Hoyt to clarify. Why hadn’t the city called us to explain why it was unwilling to fulfill the request in the manner we requested? If there was a technical problem, could we be given the chance to lend a hand? The answers were vague, though in a subsequent story, Hoyt said, “Well, the fact is, the law doesn’t say it has to be done the way anybody else wants it. We can provide it in whatever format is appropriate for us.”
To us, this seems like an act of bad faith.
We were unwilling to pay for something we had specifically said we didn’t want. As he was leaving, Hoyt took the bill off the table but left the printouts.
In early 2011, Councilman Ben Little pressed the city to take legal action against the newspaper in order to collect the $1,800, something it eventually did by heading to court in May of that year. Since our attorneys answered the city’s complaint in June 2011, the case has been mostly dormant. We were hoping it would be dismissed.
Now we learn a trial date is set for Aug. 13.
I spoke with Mayor Gene Robinson about this Friday. He said he wasn’t aware that the case was still being pursued, but added he’s been busy with other matters, namely running for re-election. The mayor reminded me that he voted against the city pursuing this matter in small-claims court. Robinson said he was “truly, adamantly” and “philosophically opposed to” going to court over the bill.
On a far happier note, I’m proud to announce The Star has begun work with Pediment Publishing to produce a book we’re calling “Calhoun County Memories.”
The book will compile photos and front pages from more than 100 years of our region’s history. For our sources, we’ll use The Star’s archives as well as the photo collections from the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County. But there’s a big role for the public, as well.
Pediment Publishing staff will sponsor three public scanning sessions in late August. The public is invited to bring in general-interest photos taken from the 1800s onward of scenes from Calhoun County. Experts will be on hand to scan the photos and collect information about them.
The three sessions are: Wednesday, Aug. 22, from 9 a.m. until noon at The Star’s offices; Thursday, Aug. 23, from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. at the downtown Anniston branch of the library; and Friday, Aug. 24, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m at the downtown Anniston branch of the library. (For complete details, see the full-page on Page 11C of today’s paper.)
Look to this space for more updates on this book project.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis