Faculty union sues Alabama university, alleging open-records violations

ALABAMA — After a losing two-year battle to gain access to Alabama State University records, an organization that represents the university’s employees filed suit against the university Feb. 4.

Derryn Moten, associate professor of humanities at Alabama State University, requested records between December 2002 and November 2004, including copies of board of trustee meeting minutes and reports produced by paid consultants of the university regarding faculty salary inequities. He said he was ignored or denied after each request.

“I work at a university where we are a public school, and the faculty salaries rank near the bottom of the four-year publics [in the country], and that has been a historical trend at our university,” Moten said about why he requested the documents.

The university board of trustees sets the salaries of all employees at the university and the salary decisions are typically made in private, Moten said.

“We generally are given the results of their decisions or are made known of the results of their decisions, but we are not privy to the documents that they used to make those decisions,” Moten said.

Moten is the co-president of the Faculty-Staff Alliance at the university, an affiliate of the AFL/ CIO. Moten alleges that the university used his position as a reason to deny Moten his requests, because the union is a non-recognized bargaining agent or unit for employees at the university.

The Alabama Open Records Law stipulates that citizens may gain access to most public records, including public meeting minutes.

“The university is under no obligation to recognize the union, but we do have in terms of our membership, probably about two-thirds of the faculty and one-third of the staff as our members,” Moten said. “I qualify for these records as a citizen of the state of Alabama and we believe the university has erred in its reading of the law.”

Alabama State University was “unable to comment at this time,” according to Julie Debardelabden, director of university relations.

Moten said he is not the only person denied public records by the university. In fact, the Montgomery Advertiser, a local newspaper, filed a similar lawsuit in January after months of open records requests were not answered.

“Unfortunately the university has a propensity of denying access to the public of public records of the university,” Moten said. “This is pretty much a standard operating procedure of the university.”

The university has 20 days to respond to the complaint, which was filed by Moten and the Faculty-Staff Alliance.

“As of right now, I’m not sure what the university is going to do,” Moten said. “I’ve been heartened by the fact that two of the major newspapers have come down in our favor, so we’re really encouraged. We really think that the law is on our side in this case.”

–By Elisabeth Salemme