News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


It's time to stop stonewalling and release records to the public

The stonewalling against inspection of e-mails at the Morgan County Courthouse turns far more serious today. It's no longer a case of Commissioner Stacy George tilting at windmills, but one of elected officials attempting a legal end-run around complying with state law.

The Morgan County Commission meets today at 1 p.m. in a work session and again at 2 p.m. Commissioners are expected to consider two proposals for which they used taxpayer money to pay an attorney to find a way to deny public records to taxpayers.

The effort is part of a national trend by public officeholders that accelerated after 9/11. Their basic philosophy is that the people of a democracy have no business knowing what government is doing. They know that open government makes them accountable to the public for their actions. They use national security and privacy as excuses to close public records and to shortcut the safeguards set up to protect everybody else's guaranteed rights.

Alabama law is clear about the public records the commission is sheltering. Most of them, by state law, are open for public inspection, including the e-mails on county computers at the courthouse.

Two proposals that County Attorney Bill Shinn drafted are anti-public. One amounts to any citizen having to ask to see specific e-mails, and would deny the public inspection of public records. The public would have to take a bureaucrat's word that the specified records do - or do not - exist. People wanting to inspect the records would have to bring their own computers on which to view them.

That is to discourage people from asking for records.

The other proposal sets a 50-cent fee for each copy of an e-mail, which could amount to a sizeable sum of money and could deny some people access because of their inability to pay. Anticipating somebody running up a big bill, the proposal calls for the person asking for the records to make a security deposit before getting the documents.

That's another attempt to discourage the public from asking to see public records.

Commissioner Jeff Clark is even talking about simply destroying records, which is against the law without following a strict process for doing so. Destroying the records, of course, could be a convenient way to deny Mr. George the e-mails he seeks. More than what Mr. George wants is at stake here.

Destroying public records illegally is punishable by a year in jail.

Whether you are on Mr. George's "side" or Sheriff Greg Bartlett's "side" or Revenue Commissioner Amanda Scott's "side" of the e-mail controversy doesn't matter. What's important is that county commissioners uphold due process and stop the stonewalling.

If the commission passes either of these policy options, doing so will invite statewide scrutiny and the matter will wind up in court. This policy is not about principle, but about holding the line on e-mails someone doesn't want the public to see for reasons that may or may not go beyond the line of duty.

This is about all of our rights, which should put all of us on the same side.

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