The Jackson Sun in a Sunday editorial called for reform of the state’s public records fee schedule after getting a $1,600 public records bill for copies of emails about University of Tennessee at Martin’s academic probation.
When UT-Martin’s administrators said they didn’t have specifics about the probation, the newspaper requested to review emails to and from the college’s administrative and academic leadership team on the topic.
What the emails showed: UTM knew it was at risk for losing accreditation for multiple years for failing to address five specific and related standards, yet did little about it. (See story: UTM repeatedly failed to fix issues that led to probation)
Getting copies of those emails was expensive because state rules have very little checks on how a government entity goes about deciding per-hour labor fees. In UT-Martin’s case, the news organization was charged $108 per hour at the interim chancellor’s pay rate to review emails before releasing them.
Here’s more detail from the editorial by Editor Steve Coffman, Labor fees for public records requests need reform:
It is obscene that a media organization, or a private citizen, could be billed $1,600 for records that show a government entity failed miserably to fulfill a portion of its mission, which is funded by millions of tax dollars.
The Jackson Sun was in discussions with UTM at the time the records were provided about what personnel were involved in filling our request. For instance, we suggested that an assistant could review the emails of Interim Chancellor Robert Smith, rather than Smith himself.
State law allows government entities to charge the hourly rate of employees involved in filling public records requests, based on their pay rate or salary.
UTM filled our request before our discussions about who was involved in identifying the records were complete.
To UTM’s credit, it wanted to provide the information we sought as quickly as possible, and it acknowledged our opposition to the charges. The university said we could pay the amount in full, pay what we thought was appropriate, credit UTM for all or a portion of the bill in advertising, or pay nothing at all.
The Jackson Sun chose to pay the entire amount of the bill, in two installments. While we object to this system, we felt it was important to follow the law established by our state government.
The detailed bill from UTM shows it charged us for as little as one minute of time for an employee who makes $39.87 an hour to four and a half hours of Interim Chancellor Smith’s time at a rate of $108.18 an hour. Eight of the employees involved in filling the request make more than $50 an hour.
In calling for statewide reform, The Jackson Sun noted the rules for fees are “wide open for abuse by government bureaucrats who want to restrict access to public records, particularly those records that may expose their failure to act as good stewards of the public’s business and taxpayer dollars.”
More specifics are needed on what employees are “reasonably necessary” to fill requests. Restrictions are necessary to prevent governments from handing records requests off to outside lawyers who charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. An appeal system must be developed for absurd labor fees, short of taking a government entity to court.
When it returns to Nashville, the legislature should order a review of the Schedule of Reasonable Charges for public records that would fairly represent the needs of private citizens, the mission of news organizations and the concerns of government employees.
We believe Tennessee can – and must – develop a better plan.