Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett filed comments with the Office of Open Records Counsel today, expressing opposition to charging taxpayers to inspect public documents, saying it would be a step backward.
As a former state senator, I had the opportunity to sponsor bills updating and strengthening portions of the current Open Records Act. As a legislator, my focus was – and remains today – on ensuring openness and transparency in government. Accountability begins with access, and true accountability means reducing, not increasing, obstacles to access public records.
Charging taxpayers for exercising their right to merely inspect the very documents their taxes pay to produce is a ridiculous step backward, out of the sunshine and into the shadows.
It is my hope that members of the state legislature will not approve such a measure.
The comments were in response to three public hearings planned for next week by the Office of Open Records Counsel. The hearings are intended to gather input and information before the Open Records Counsel makes a recommendation to the Legislature in January on a proposal to change the law to allow governments in Tennessee to charge citizens to look at public records. The law currently prohibits charges if a citizen wants to simply look at a record, but allows governments to charge fees if someone wants copies of public records.
The first hearing is in Knoxville on Tuesday, followed by a hearing in Nashville on Wednesday and in Jackson on Thursday. (More information about the hearings here.) In addition to the hearings, where citizens can sign up to speak in advance, the Office of Open Records Counsel is asking for written comment to be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(TCOG has also prepared comments to questions being posed by the Office of Open Records Counsel: TCOG answers 5 questions on charging fees for public records.)
Burchett’s communications director, Michael Grider, also filed comments with the Open Records Counsel, noting that part of his job entails responding to and fulfilling open records requests:
As a former journalist and current public information professional, I’m concerned about the negative impact that passage of SB0328/HB0315 would have on public access to government records at the state and local level.
Charging citizens simply to view records that are open to the public creates an undue burden that only discourages public scrutiny and, as a result, diminishes state and local governments’ accountability to citizens.
As Director of Communications for Knox County Government, part of my job entails responding to- and fulfilling open records requests. In my experience, the number and volume of public records inspection requests is not so demanding that it warrants charging a citizen for inspection of public records.
Currently, if a Tennessee resident desires to inspect a public document but cannot otherwise afford to pay a fee in order to obtain copies of that record, he or she has the no-cost alternative of reviewing the record without the need to copies. Public records should be accessible to all citizens, not just to those who have the financial means to pay a fee in order to review records.
Put simply, passage of this bill would afford our government leaders protection from prying eyes, when in fact the spirit and purpose of maintaining public records is to protect the interests of our citizens.
Inspection of public records should remain a fee-free and protected right of any citizen of the State of Tennessee.