Governor Kay Ivey's office responded Tuesday to a legal battle between a toll bridge company and the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).
The Governor's Office has been working to suppress the release of communications between it and ALDOT related to the case of the Baldwin County Bridge Company, LLC case. (BCBC) v. John R. Cooper — the director of ALDOT. The two public entities are working together to keep information private after attorneys for BCBC requested to see what they consider public information as part of their case against the state.
BCBC filed the lawsuit on Oct. 22, 2022, claiming a new bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway could bankrupt the company. The current bridge was built 22 years ago after BCBC secured funds from private investors, allowing the state to avoid building the much-needed bridge. In return, BCBC has been able to collect tolls. When BCBC learned of plans for ALDOT to build a new, competing bridge, BCBC said it offered to build the new bridge and waive the toll for Baldwin County residents. Another proposed option was to add lanes to the existing bridge.
When the lawsuit was filed, attorneys for BCBC requested discovery items that included communications on how the decision was made to build the new bridge. The original Circuit Court judge, the Honorable Jimmy Pool, determined on January 30 that BCBC was entitled to that information and ordered the documents to be produced by ALDOT. At 1 a.m. the following day, attorneys from Balch & Bingham LLP, representing Cooper, filed extensive matters with the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court entered an order blocking the ALDOT communications from being released before BCBC attorneys could respond.
Ivey has since filed a motion to allow her to support Cooper in the Supreme Court case. The timing of the filing was just a week after Ivey signed Executive Order (EO) 734, "Promoting Transparency in State Government Through Enhanced Accessibility to Public Records." While the order established a series of protocols for accessing public records across state agencies, Ivey's team maintains executive or deliberative process privileges protect the records requested in the BCBC case.
"The governor's legal team is working to formally state her position, and that will be done the right way and the most transparent way – in court," said Ivey's communications director, Gina Maiola. "Governor Ivey's executive order on public records makes the request process more accessible, response times more timely and fees more reasonable, while also acknowledging that there has to be a balance for an efficiently run government."
Maiola also pointed out that the order states, "the Alabama Supreme Court has also recognized that disclosure of government records must always be balanced against the need for government business to be conducted 'efficiently and without undue interference.'"
ALDOT's Tony Harris previously told 1819 News that ALDOT wants to build the bridge to reduce traffic. Harris accused the toll bridge of being "foreign-owned". He said that the lawsuit from the bridge company would "waste taxpayer money" and "only exacerbate the traffic problems on the Gulf Coast."
"For years, ALDOT engaged in good faith negotiations, but the toll bridge company refused to agree to any requirements to reduce traffic congestion and instead demanded a 50-year guarantee that no other bridge would be built in the area, regardless of need," Harris said. "This company wanted a promise that their monopoly, which has never worked, would be protected for another 50 years. It's hard to imagine a worse idea."
Attorney Joe Espy said on behalf of BCBC they hope the courts eventually agree to allow the information to be released.
"The information is important to the case," Espy told 1819 News. "It goes to the intent of Director Cooper. We're hopeful that the trial court decision will be upheld and that this matter will be transparent to all."
A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for February 22.
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