Bill to punish “harassing” public records requesters delayed until first calendars in 2020

Proposed legislation that would allow a government entity in Tennessee to get an injunction to stop public records requesters whose requests constituted “harassment” has been delayed until next year.

The bills, Senate Bill 590 and House Bill 626, sought to allow government entities to stop a public records requester from making further requests if a judge found the requests to be made “in a manner that would cause a reasonable person, including a records custodian or any staff of the public entity in control of the public records, to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened, or harassed.”

The bills’ sponsors, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, offered different amendments to their bills before asking to defer committee action until the first calendars of 2020. Both said they filed the bills at the request of the city of Gallatin who had been overwhelmed by requests to inspect records from one particular public records requester.

“Harassing” public records requester could lose free inspection

Rep. Lamberth’s amendment altered language so that an injunction could only be issued to public records requesters who were using the “free inspection” option. Under the amendment, the requester’s whose behavior was “harassment” could lose the “free inspection” option and be required to pay all costs associated with requests, including labor, going forward.

Also, the amendment gave a pass to journalists and others by stating that a public records request to gather government information for the purpose of broadcasting, publishing or distributing information to others could not constitute harassment. The amendment also required reports to the Office of Open Records Counsel when a government entity sought an injunction against a requester.

But perhaps the most significant change to Lamberth’s bill were requirements that government entities make public records more easily accessible to the public.

Lamberth said he heard from hundreds of people across Tennessee including those frustrated with getting public records from governments. He added a requirement to his bill that government entities post “basic information” on their website.

Basic information in his bill would include:

  • Agendas for upcoming public meetings;
  • Minutes from public meetings;
  • Other meeting documents for upcoming meetings that were provided to board members in a board packet;
  • The annual comprehensive financial report of the government entity;
  • Policies, rules, ordinances, or resolutions governing the public meetings, public hearings, and public records of each governing body; and
  • A list of members of county commissions, city councils, boards of aldermen and other governing bodies.

Bill would require meeting agendas, documents to be online

“I’ve been working very diligently for the past months to try to get to a good balancing point,” Lamberth said during the House Judiciary Committee meeting on April 9. “In hearing from hundreds of folks that have been harassed by individuals that had kind of weaponized the system, I realized that there was a massive problem with our public records request system.”

Rep. William Lamberth said he wanted to make it easier for citizens to get access to basic government information, such as agendas for upcoming public meetings.

“…It is very frustrating for citizens of this state to get that information. And when I say that information, the second half of this amendment requires that if you are a state agency, if you are a city or county agency, there is basic information that you would have to put on a website.

“You would have to put your agenda before it’s voted upon in a committee out there to the public on a website so they can access it.

“You’d have to put the membership of your council, the membership of the boards, the individuals to contact if you wanted information, the packets of material, basic information would have to be out there. The minutes once approved would have to be online.

“Now, some of you are looking at me like I must have lost my mind to require cities and counties to do this much work. And I understand that. But I’m serious about this initiative. It is time for us to update our public records system so that the people of this state can get the information that they paid for, that they deserve and they have a right to.”

Announcing that he had “run out of time” and would be deferring the bill until the first calendar of the Judiciary Committee in 2020, Lamberth said he wanted to get the latest amendment added to the bill so that everyone could see his starting point.

If we’re really all about transparency, let’s get busy with it. Let’s get real about it and let’s actually do what we say we want to do. Let’s make this information transparent and easy to get.”

State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland

“But I wanted to give that little speech just so any of you who are interested in transparency, in updating our public record system… if we’re really all about transparency, let’s get busy with it. Let’s get real about it and let’s actually do what we say we want to do. Let’s make this information transparent and easy to get,” Lamberth said.

Cities, counties worried about work, expertise to put information online

Some committee members made remarks saying they had been contacted by local government entities and public utilities who were worried about the efforts required to post information to their website.

Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, said he was contacted by his county and city mayors about the requirements to post agendas and other meeting information on the website before a meeting. He said in some rural areas, they don’t have staff who know how to do upkeep on the websites.

“I think it’s a wise direction, but I don’t want to encumber them with fees,” Sanderson said.

Lamberth said he had also been contacted by public officials about the bill’s requirements.

“I will say that some of those same small-town mayors who have reached out to me about this bill, I actually checked their Facebook pages, and it’s amazing just how adept they are at posting to their Facebook pages while at the same time claiming they cannot post public information.”

Public utilities opposed bill

Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, said he had been contacted by his local public utility who said it would be too difficult an undertaking to post such items on its website, and thanked Lamberth for rolling the bill until next year.

Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, praised Lamberth for trying to get at people who were abusing the public record process.

In responding to comments about imposing burdens on local entities to post meeting agendas and other information to their websites, Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, added that “transparency often requires time, effort and expense. I don’t want this to prevent us from achieving the goal of more transparency.”

(Lamberth’s amendment, with the barcode 7656, that was added to the bill in the House Judiciary is not yet online, but a copy of it is here.)

A different amendment added during the Senate Judiciary Committee by Sen. Haile kept the language from the original bill to allow an injunction to prevent a person who made any type of public records request from making any further records requests.

That amendment did not include a specific exception for the news media or others who would be gathering information for publication, broadcast or distribution to others.

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