Proposed Tennessee bills could close public records; a few open them up

Lawmakers of 109th General Assembly have filed a host of bills to block or hinder citizen access to public records in the hands of government. Several of the proposed Tennessee bills could close public records, while another proposes to charge fees to inspect records.

The latter would set up a hurdle that could discourage citizens from pursuing records requests. The proposed fees would cover some of the time public employees spend gathering or redacting records for disclosure. Local government would determine the hours of labor involved, which leaves open the possibility that fees could be inflated to block or discourage access.

While some bills affecting public records  focus on making private citizen information confidential, many seek to close records that have been used by citizens and media to ensure accountability of their local government.

At least two bills seek to make records more available, including records of public hospital boards and records concerning proposed street and highway changes.

Following is a list of bills to watch during the legislative season:

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has filed a bill that seeks to impose fees on citizens who request to look at government records if it takes more than an hour to get the record ready.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has filed a bill that seeks to impose fees on citizens who request to look at government records if it takes more than an hour to get the record ready.

New fees for citizens who want to inspect public records. Would allow a records custodian to charge citizens fees to inspect records, including fees for the time spent compiling the record or redacting the records. Currently, local entities cannot charge fees if a citizen wants to inspect a record, but can charge fees if the citizen wants copies of records. The first hour of labor would be free under the bills, as would the first 25 copies. Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbville, and Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, are sponsoring the bills.

S.B. 328/H.B.315

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-503(a)(7)(A), is amended by deleting the first sentence and substituting instead the following language: A records custodian

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, has filed the House bill that would allow for fees for inspecting records.

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, has filed the House bill that would allow for fees for inspecting records.

may require a written request to view a public record. A records custodian may assess a reasonable charge in producing the record for viewing if the records custodian incurs costs. A records custodian may require a request for copies of public records to be in writing or that the request be made on a form developed by the office of open records counsel. SECTION 2. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 8-4-604(a)(1)(A), is amended by deleting the language “requesting copies of public records” and substituting instead the language “requesting inspection or copies of public records”. SECTION 3. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 8-4-604(a)(1)(A)(ii), is amended by deleting subdivision (c). SECTION 4. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 8-4-604(a)(1)(A), is amended by adding the following new subdivision: (iii) The hours of labor involved in gathering the documents to produce for inspection and the cost of any copies required to produce the documents for inspection; provided, however, the first hour of labor costs and the first twenty-five (25) copies shall be free of charge.

Job performance evaluations of certain state employees.  Would not allow the public to see performance evaluations and scores of employees of the Department of Treasury, Comptroller of Treasury, Secretary of State, and employees of public institutions of higher education. The bills are being sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, and Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville.

S.B. 1276/H.B.1158

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-504(a), is amended by adding the following language as a new, appropriately designated subdivision: (25) (A) Job performance evaluations of the following employees shall be treated as confidential and shall not be open for public inspection: (i) Employees of the department of treasury; (ii) Employees of the comptroller of the treasury; (iii) Employees of the secretary of state’s office; and (iv) Employees of public institutions of higher education. (B) For purposes of this subdivision (25), “job performance evaluations” includes, but is not limited to, job performance evaluations completed by supervisors, communications concerning job performance evaluations, selfevaluations of job performance prepared by employees, job performance evaluation scores, drafts, notes, memoranda, and all other records relating to job performance evaluations. (C) Nothing in this subdivision (25) shall be construed to limit access to those records by law enforcement agencies, courts, or other governmental agencies performing official functions.

TSSAA records. Would make records of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Association confidential. Last year, the Court of Appeals ruled that TSSAA’s records were subject to the Tennessee Public Records Act because the agency acted as a functional equivalent of government in its regulation of high school athletic competitions. The companion bills were filed by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville.

S.B. 1225/H.B. 1077:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-503(a)(1), is amended by adding the following language as a new subdivision: ( ) “Public record or records” or “state record or records” does not include any records held by a voluntary association that establishes bylaws or rules for interscholastic sports competition for secondary schools in this state and enforces those bylaws or rules that the association is not otherwise required by law to provide. SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it.

Water useage: Would allow water utilities to keep confidential how much water is used by customers, including companies and individuals. Sponsored by Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, and Rep. Karen D. Camper, D-Memphis.

S.B. 762/H.B. 747:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-504(a)(20)(A)(iii), is amended by deleting the language “consumer specific energy usage data” and substituting instead the language “consumer-specific energy and water usage data”.

Driver’s license information of law enforcement officers: A current exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act allows confidentiality of driver’s license information of any public employee whose job duties do not include driving or operating a vehicle. These bills would also exempt driver’s license information of law enforcement even if they drive as part of their job. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. JoAnn Favors, D-Chattanooga.

S.B. 451/H.B. 462:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-504, is amended by deleting subdivision (f)(1)(E) in its entirety and substituting instead the following language: (f) (1) (E) Driver license information except where driving or operating a vehicle is part of the employee’s job description or job duties or incidental to the performance of the employee’s job; provided, however, any law enforcement officer driver license information shall remain confidential and not open for public inspection;

Here are a few that make records more accessible:

Maps of future plans of streets and highways: Would require a county or municipality to post a map of future streets and highways on their websites about a month before any hearing on the proposal. The bill does not change any requirements for public notice of the public hearing on the map, which must be 15 days before the hearing and published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county or municipality. Sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville.

S.B. 129/H.B. 207:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 54-18-205, is amended by adding the following new sentence to subsection (a): A county or municipality shall also publish the map on the county or municipality’s web site, which shall be accessible to the public, no less than thirty (30) days prior to the date of the hearing.

Removes exemptions of public hospital boards to meet in private or keep certain records confidential: This would delete an exemption that allowed public hospital boards that are subject to the Open Meetings Act to close their meetings to discuss marketing strategies and strategic plans. The exemption also currently allows the hospital boards to keep those plans confidential until 7 days before a public meeting in which they would considered for adoption. This legislations comes on the heels of Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga holding private meetings to discuss $1.7 million in bonuses for its executives, and then adding an agenda item to vote on the bonuses just a few hours before the public meeting. Bills are brought by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

S.B.26/H.B. 16:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 68-11-238, is amended by deleting the section in its entirety.

What do you think?