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Alabama editorial roundup

May 1, 2019

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

April 27:

The Dothan Eagle on accessible government:

Alabamians who hope to get their hands on public documents may or may not succeed. If they do, they could be presented with a bill that would make their eyes bug out.

That is sometimes the case. Public document requests are often viewed as annoyances by public employees who already have heavy workloads. And the cost - as high as a dollar a page or more - can discourage document seekers.

Worse, they may be ignored entirely.

State law doesn’t help; Alabama’s open records law is notoriously weak. And it appears it will stay that way, at least for the time being.

The Alabama Legislature has an opportunity to make the law more effective. A bill introduced by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would require public officials to respond to requests within five days, establish a reasonable schedule of fees for producing documents, and ensure accountability by requiring the designation of a Public Records Counselor who would be held responsible if records - or valid reasons for rejection - are not produced within the specified time frame.

The measure was discussed this week in a Senate committee, and lost traction over concerns about the responsibilities of the Public Records Counselor. Ultimately, the committee declined to vote on the measure.

That’s unfortunate for the people of Alabama. The public has every right to view public documents upon request, and should be able to acquire copies for a reasonable fee.

Lawmakers must reach a consensus over points of concern in the bill, and put it back on track for a vote. Open and accessible government is good government.

Online: https://www.dothaneagle.com

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April 27

The Anniston Star on a statewide lottery:

Alabama doesn’t need a statewide lottery. It needs better public schools and lower poverty rates and properly run prisons and improved infrastructure and a host of other things — some massive, others less so but nonetheless important. But a lottery isn’t a must-have.

That said, Alabamians deserve the opportunity to vote on a statewide lottery. Let voters, not politicians, decide. The argument has gone on too long, years upon years. But if Alabamians do get that opportunity, we hope the lottery proposal they’ll consider will be better than the one that passed the state Senate this week.

How should we put this?

Senate Bill 220 stinks.

Yeah, that’s a fair statement. SB220 stinks. It stinks financially and politically. At best, rough projections say it would raise just $160 million a year — which is chump change among state lotteries. It strongly protects the gaming interests of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the independent kingpins of gambling in our state.

And worse, still — it would provide no money to the Education Trust Fund. Not a penny.

Gambling bleeds byproducts, most of them nasty to the core. In particular, lotteries hurt the poor more than the well-to-do, negatively affect poverty rates and can be dreadful for people suffering from addictive behaviors.

Lotteries’ only redeeming value is the financial windfall they can provide to statewide programs, namely, public education. But that’s not the case with SB220.

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, are the masterminds behind a pro-Poarch Band lottery bill that barely passed the Senate and squanders its only true value — the opportunity to boost public education in Alabama. They should be ashamed.

SB220 is a sham and a disgrace. The Alabama House should give it scant consideration without amending it to include new revenue for public schools. And if Alabama voters eventually vote on a lottery that doesn’t help public education, they should vote it down, and emphatically so.

Online: https://www.annistonstar.com

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April 26

The Tuscaloosa News on police transparency:

We have tremendous respect for Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steve Anderson. Once again, he has shown a commitment to transparency, rather than an instinct to circle the wagons to protect his department. When it comes to government transparency, this is beyond refreshing.

Unfortunately, in today’s environment, where everything is politicized, such transparency is too often forsaken. That’s why we applaud Anderson’s decision to quickly release the body camera footage from two Tuscaloosa police officers’ arrest of a woman in Tuscaloosa last Friday and denounce the officers’ behavior. The video is appalling. Yet Anderson did not have to release it — police body cam footage, for now, is not subject to the state’s open records law.

We realize a citizen’s video of the arrest was already circulating on social media, which likely contributed to Anderson’s decision to release the footage. After viewing that citizen’s video, our impression, like Anderson’s, was that the officers had not gone too far, even though at one point one of the officers hit the woman with his baton, forcefully. Without context, without knowing what came before or after or what might have happened that we couldn’t see, we wanted to know more to determine whether it was newsworthy.

Too many times the media have jumped to conclusions on something like this, only to learn that first impressions were wrong. Usually, that has meant someone was cast in an unfavorable light that turned out to be unfair. This case appears to be the other way around. The body cam footage showed the execution of an arrest that seemed well out of proportion to what the circumstances required. Not only was the arrest unnecessarily physical, the woman was threatened with bodily harm — “You do anything other than what you’re told to do right now and I’m going to kick you in the teeth” — and subjected to a stream of profanity.

Police officers have a tough and dangerous job. A seemingly innocuous situation could escalate rapidly into a life-threatening one. They have to be prepared for that — but they also need the judgment to correctly evaluate a situation and the temperament to react appropriately.

“The attitude, the language, the berating and making threats,” Anderson said during a press conference Wednesday. “There’s no place for it. There’s no need for it.”

Together, the videos are another cautionary tale for those quick to assume the truth of what they see online. They show how vantage point and other factors can affect perception and mislead, in this case dramatically. Perhaps some evidence will surface that changes this perspective, although we can’t imagine what it would be. Anderson himself left little room for that possibility.

“I was disgusted by what I saw, by what I heard and I was embarrassed by it,” he said. “It does not reflect our core values here at the Tuscaloosa Police Department.”

More than once, Anderson has publicly acknowledged when TPD officers have not acted appropriately, and he has defended his officers when he believes they’ve been unfairly maligned. This is as it should be. It’s also more uncommon than it should be among government leaders.

“Incidents like this can tear down all of our efforts and that’s a problem for me,” Anderson said. “Now, we have to start the process over of gaining the public’s trust back.”

That process began with Anderson’s candor. Gaining the public’s trust starts with being truthful.

Online: https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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