News Sentinel: Bill would charge extra fees for public records

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports in its Sunday edition what Knox County school board members think of an effort  by the Tennessee School Boards Association to change the law so that citizens can be charged inspection fees for public records. The story “Bill would charge extra for public records” by reporter Lydia X. McCoy is reprinted here, with permission:

A majority of Knox County school board members said they support proposed legislation that would allow government agencies, including school systems, to charge residents more to inspect public records.

For others, the bill raises some concerns.

The bill, being sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, on behalf of the Tennessee School Boards Association, would allow for the first hour of labor associated with gathering public records to be free, as well as the first 25 copies made. Agencies are already permitted to charge for copies of records.

Randall Bennett, deputy executive director and general counsel for the TSBA, said the lobbying group was beginning to see school districts getting “overwhelmed” with public records requests.

“It’s not that we have an issue with people coning in viewing records, it’s just that there is so much private information within those records that it takes time to redact,” he said. “If the request is huge, it takes a significant amount of time to redact the private information that must be redacted from that, and there’s no way to recoup the costs of that or recover the labor costs.”

Bennett said the school districts aren’t trying to be unreasonable and the association doesn’t believe adding a charge will deter the average person from looking at records.

“Most requests are small and reasonable and can certainly be handled within the time period that we’re proposing,” he said. “There wouldn’t be a charge based on that. It’s just when we start getting massive records requests that do require a lot of handling. That’s where our concern is, so I don’t think it would deter the average citizen.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government, disagreed. She noted the legislation would affect not just school districts, but all government agencies in the state — and would essentially charge the public double for the records, given that employees pulling the records are already on the public payrolls.

“If someone couldn’t afford to pay to look at a public records, they would essentially be blocked from seeing that public record,” Fisher said. “That’s our biggest concern, that the fees would hinder access and in some cases block access to public records entirely.”

Fisher said providing information to the public is an essential part of government and should always be considered a part of the routine duties of public employees.

“When there are roadblocks, such as fees that would inhibit that transparency, it sometimes can lead to mistrust,” Fisher said. “So I think if it takes a few hours for government employee to compile some records for someone to see, that’s a good investment, and that’s part of what government should be doing.”

She suggested that instead of establishing fees, a records custodian should talk with the person requesting records to help better identify the documents sought.

“That would create more efficiency for everybody and keep local government out of fights with citizens over access to public records,” Fisher said. “Frankly, when government starts blocking access, we’ve seen lawsuits by citizens that have been filed that end up costing thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees. So instead of paying legal fees, just provide access.”

Knox County school board members said while they want to learn more about the legislation, most supported being able to charge for employees’ time spent gathering records.

Board chairman Mike McMillan said he’d like to see the entire bill, but based on what he knows, he wouldn’t be against charging a fee if an employee has to gather or redact a large number of records or sit with someone inspecting records for more than an hour.

“If it involves more than an hour, it should be $10 or $15 an hour that they did that, because obviously the staff person could be doing something more productive,” he said.

Board member Doug Harris said he likes the idea of giving the first hour for free, and maybe a little bit more than that. He said he’s while he’s not advocating that anyone should be held back from requesting or viewing records, he thinks a small cost would be fair.

“I do think if the request gets so erroneous that you start taking a lot of time from your employees, there is a cost to it,” he said. “And at the end of the day if people don’t trust what’s going on, there needs to be a change in the people who are in charge. … If everybody starts asking for public records, I mean, there’s a cost to that, so I think it would be fair to pass some of that on to the people who are asking for the records.”

Harris said he also believes that if established, the law should set the rate instead of just identifying the cost as “reasonable.”

“I don’t know what your definition of reasonable is, and I’m sure both of our definitions would be different. I think they should be a number on it,” he said.

Lynne Fugate, a TSBA member at-large and the school board’s representative to the organization, said she believes there are communities in the state where records requests are becoming a problem, but she doesn’t believe it’s an issue in Knox County.

“I prefer that legislation be written that allows us to do it, not require us to do it. We talk a whole lot about local decisions,” she said. “If you’re a really big system and lots and lots of man hours are spent gathering lots and lots of documents, that is a hard cost to people.”

Fugate said she doesn’t support charging for the inspection of records.

“If you’re willing to come sit there and look through it, I hate to see the inspection could be charged,” she said. “But I do think if you have people up there every day and it’s taking a staff member the better part of all their time to be available to have lots of people come in and look, I can see why a local board would say, ‘We’re paying a salary and this is really costing us because this person isn’t able to do their job.’ ”

But not all board members said they support the bill.

“I understand there’s a cost involved, but I think that transparency is part of government. I would go more toward transparency and the right of citizens to be a part of their government,” said board member Patti Bounds. “I think freedom of information is highly important, and I understand that government, to some extent, is trying to recoup the costs of some things that might be involved, but I think there are other ways.”

What do you think?