Politicians and public officials like to use the word a lot; transparency.
But we’ve found transparency is not always easy to achieve.
Lately, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has been praising improvements in Mobile’s Municipal Court. What hasn’t improved? Access to public court records. Access to those public documents can only be gotten by a request through the Mayor’s office.
George Talbot is the Communications Director for the city and the single point of contact for all public records request. He says the delay in releasing public municipal court records is because of a vetting process to protect personal, private information.
Mobile City Attorney Ricardo Woods says not all records inside government plaza are public. But while sensitive information contained in court files is protected, court files by state law are public records. Court files can contain information like names of domestic violence victims, social security numbers or financial information.
But we questioned why someone in the political office of the mayor was involved in vetting public records and raised the question, ‘What if the Mayor or someone inside the Mayor’s camp doesn’t want certain information contained in public documents to be public?’
Bill: “I’m not saying that’s happened, but as a for instance,”
Woods: “I’m saying that hasn’t happened–but I understand the hypothetical…”
Most court systems are moving to put court records online. For example, virtually all records in Mobile’s Circuit and District Courts are online and can be accessed for free on computers in the court clerk’s office, or through a paid service called Alacourt.
The public records at Mobile Municipal court are also online, but access is restricted. Talbot says the administration is working to upgrade the system so that there is better public access to Municipal Court records, however, it is still some time away.