• Local prosecutors have enough on their hands in the criminal courts without having to add violations of Sunshine Laws.
• The criminal penalties in the state’s original open-meetings law were rarely applied to public officials.
• Civil courts are a better venue given that the stigma of a “crime” often doesn’t apply to public officials who don’t follow open-government laws based on their ignorance, as opposed to their malevolence or criminal intent.
• Let’s be honest. Alabama’s lucky to get what it got when it comes to ensuring governments do their business in the open. Remember, when crafting Sunshine Laws we’re asking politicians to police themselves and their pals in elected offices. That’s not so easy, in Alabama or anywhere else.
The state is fortunate to have a strong Alabama Press Association that is often the only voice in Montgomery advocating for the rights of citizens to keep an eye on their government. The association and Dennis Bailey, its legal counsel, have played an active and beneficial role in bolstering the state’s open-government laws.
However, like most things that make their way through the sausage grinder called Alabama’s legislative process, the laws are not perfect.
If an Alabama resident can’t get the appropriate level of sunshine from a government agency, the only real recourse is to head to civil court. It takes money to hire an attorney and file the appropriate legal paperwork. There’s not much room between two options — either keep asking for the documents or go to court. And what if it seems like a waste of time and money to sue over an open-and-shut open records case? The Star found itself in an unusual position this year when the board of Regional Medical Center sued the newspaper for requesting information about the purchase of a hospital in Jacksonville. For the record, the newspaper had no plans to take the hospital to court.
Yet, our mission today is not to propose substantially altering our open-government laws. It’s to put a little muscle behind them, specifically the weight of the office of Attorney General Luther Strange.
Attorney General Strange recently announced he will seek a second term in office in the 2014 elections. He’s yet to have a challenger, in the Republican primary or for the General Election. Short of something drastic happening in a state where Republicans dominate statewide offices, Strange will win reelection, probably without breaking much of a sweat.
With such a seemingly easy path before Strange, here’s our suggestion for a campaign promise.
The Alabama Open Meetings Act is very clear when it comes to outlining who or what may take a governmental body to civil court. “Any Alabama citizen, media organization, the local District Attorney, or the Attorney General,” the law reads. That last one caught our attention.
Strange could promise to assemble an action team within the office of the attorney general. Its mission: To spread the disinfecting sunshine of openness and accountability across the state, to scan the horizon for violations of open-government laws and to take violators to civil court.
Such a move would (a.) send notice across the state that our top prosecutor was keeping an eye on government; (b.) win him the gratitude of all Alabamians who care about accountable government (and isn’t that all of us?); and (c.) establish a precedent of actively pursuing enforcement of the state’s open-government laws and in the process leave behind a proud legacy of Strange’s time in the office.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.