Posted by brandoniswrite on January 31, 2012
By Justin Hogan
A Leeds business recently brought a lawsuit against the City of Leeds, alleging the city is violating Alabama law by not disclosing public records. The suit, filed by Keith Hall Properties Inc. on January 24, claims Leeds is withholding emails that constitute public documents, charging unreasonable fees to search for and copy records, and that Leeds does not follow its own policy of answering record requests. (Click here for a copy of the filing in PDF format)
Keith Hall Properties Inc. requested that Leeds provide copies of emails from city officials related to the business and its owner, Keith Hall. These requests were made in connection with a prior, ongoing lawsuit involving the business and the City of Leeds. In a letter responding to that request, acting City Clerk Kevin Fouts told Hall that emails from the city’s servers would be provided for a 0 search fee. Fouts added that the city would not provide emails from private email accounts held by Leeds officials, though Hall specifically requested emails from those accounts.
Alabama law states that “[e]very citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” Public records are defined by Alabama law as “all written, typed or printed books, papers, letters, documents and maps made or received in pursuance of law by the public officers of the state, counties, municipalities and other subdivisions of government.” Those laws have generally been interpreted to include records of any form, including digital formats such as emails. The lawsuit contends that emails referencing Hall or his business fall within that definition and that Leeds officials are known to conduct business from their private email accounts.
As of this writing, the City of Leeds website does not list email addresses for board members or councilors. Two Leeds Councilors, Johnny Kile and Kenneth Washington, told the Herald they use their private email addresses for correspondence and had never been offered an official email account. The Herald has received correspondence regarding city matters from Leeds officials via private email accounts in the past.
The suit also says Leeds violated its own policy of providing records within seven days, because the business paid the 0 search fee on December 19 and has yet to receive any emails, according to Hall. That policy does contain an exception for requests involving “voluminous amounts” of records. The lawsuit also contends the 0 fee was unreasonable, and designed to stifle attempts to obtain records. While Herald News is not aware of court decisions involving search fees, a 1998 Alabama Attorney General’s opinion states a public agency may only charge a “nominal fee, if necessary, to cover its costs in providing copies of public records.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the City of Leeds, to force them to disclose the requested emails, to respond to record requests in a timely manner and prevent unreasonable fees from being charged. “I feel it is incredible that I have to file a lawsuit to get what other cities routinely provide to citizens without incident,” Hall told the Herald in a phone conversation. “I am amazed that [Leeds] Mayor Eric Patterson, as a lawyer, and the legal counsel of Leeds can take these kinds of positions regarding open records.”
In response to the Herald’s questions about the lawsuit, Mayor Patterson said that the City of Leeds had no comment “except to state that it has done its best to reasonably and appropriately respond to Open Records requests. However, certain Open Records requests by persons who have sued the City are numerous, extensive and have created an undue burden on an already limited City staff. The City denies the allegations made in this lawsuit, and it intends to vigorously defend itself from these attacks.”
In response, Hall said his lawsuit was about “a much bigger picture” than his own record requests. “We’re talking about a pattern of not properly archiving emails and not providing timely access to public records.”
Councilor Kile also weighed in on this issue, stating “I continue to be amazed and amused at the lengths this administration will go to keep some people in the dark concerning the total operation of our government.” Kile said Leeds has attempted to charge him for copies of public documents in the past, even though he is a City Councilor. You can read Councilor Kile’s full response concerning the lawsuit and his experience with record requests by clicking here for PDF file of his email to us.
Sean Hogan and David Hogan contributed to this article.
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