Public records come with stipulations

Published 11:52 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sunshine Week is a time to recognize the importance of open government. One of freedoms citizens enjoy is access to public records they feel are important to them.

In the city of Selma, the freedom of access to public records comes with stipulations.

Near the bottom of the city of Selma’s public records form, which can be obtained from the city clerk’s office, the person filing the public records request is asked to sign a statement acknowledging that he or she agrees not to use the information “to create a scandal; (for) improper use; useless purpose; and/or malicious purpose.”

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The rights of citizens to inspect and copy public writings, listed in Section 36-12-40 of the Code of Alabama, states that every citizen has access to public writings of the state. There is no part of Section 36-12-40 that states what a person can or cannot do with the public information.

Dennis Bailey, general counsel of the Alabama Press Association, said the statement on the city of Selma’s public records request form asking a person to sign an agreement to not use the information improperly or maliciously was wording he had not seen before.

“I’ve never heard of such language,” Bailey said.

Other information listed on the form prompts a date of request and a purpose of request, as well as a fee of $1.25 per sheet if asking for 20 or less pages of public information or $1.75 if asking for 20 or more copies.

Bailey said the price to request a public record in the city of Selma was, in his experience, excessive.

“Generally, entities are not supposed to generate income from the sale of public record copies. They’re supposed to cover their cost, and if you can go across the street from the city hall and get a copy at the library or the drug store for 25 cents, that’s pretty high,” Bailey said.

City council president Corey Bowie said he wasn’t aware that particular language was in the public records form, but he plans to put it on a work session agenda and assign it to a committee to review. Bowie intends to be chairman of the committee.

“We would be willing to revisit the whole process,” Bowie said.

Selma Mayor George Evans and Bowie both said the public records request form was made before each of them were in office. Evans said that before he was elected, citizens of Selma were using the public information to create drama, particularly around the time of elections.

During elections, Evans said the public records were used to slander elected officials.

“It was aimed at people who come and ask for information in order to undermine, disregard and neglect. That was what it was about during that time,” Evans said.

Since then, the language of the public records request form has not been changed.

When writing a purpose of request, Bailey said that any purpose should be sufficient, so long as someone’s purpose isn’t “idle curiosity.”

While stating a purpose of request is normal for any public records request form, asking for a signature agreeing to certain stipulations is not as commonplace.

Bailey said he doesn’t understand how a city government can expect anyone to agree to what is stated in the city of Selma’s public records request form.

“You might as well put in there, ‘you promise not to write anything bad about government,’” Bailey said.

In regards to the price to obtain public records at City Hall, Bowie said the price was “reasonable” and Evans said the price was “fair.” Bowie said, however, that he may review multiple parts of the public records request form.

“I think it may be noteworthy that we review the pricing and also the language of it,” Bowie said.

About Justin Fedich

Staff writer for The Selma Times-Journal.

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