House committee passes bill allowing requests by email with some limits for “bad players”

The House State Government committee unanimously passed H.B. 58 this week, which would make clear that citizens may send records requests by email to records custodians.

The email bill also contains a section meant to deal with multiple requests to view records from someone who never comes to review them, and requests for copies for which a person never pays for or retrieves.

Chairman of the State Government Committee, state Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, noted that the legislation went through several revisions, with changes from the Office of Open Records Counsel, from the bill’s sponsor and from a member of the committee, state Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville.

“What we have with this amendment seems to be satisfactory and heavily supported,” Ramsey said in the committee meeting on Tuesday.

Read the amendment.

State Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, is scheduled for a vote by the full House on Monday. It is scheduled for the Senate State & Local Government Committee on Tuesday. State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is the sponsor in the Senate.

TCOG supported the bill, writing a letter to all members of the House Committee. Read TCOG’s letter. The League of Women Voters and the Tennessee Press Association, both represented on TCOG’s board, also supported the bill.

The bill arose out of a dispute in Sumner County after a citizen, Ken Jakes, requested to see the Sumner County School Board’s public records policy. He made his request by email to the community relations official handling records requests, and also through a voice mail. The school board contended that, although they received the request, Jakes must appear in person to make the request or send a letter by U.S. Postal Service.

Jakes sued, and won at the trial level. The judge said the school district’s policy violated state law. The school district appealed the case, saying state law allows local government to reject requests if not sent in the manner it requests. It has spent more than $238,000 in legal fees on the case as of November.

Rogers has said she introduced the bill to clear up any ambiguity that might exist in the statute.

During the bill’s first presentation to the House subcommittee, one member asked if being able send records requests by email could lead to requesters sending frivolous requests. Still, the bill passed the subcommittee after Jernigan noted that he knew people who have disabilities who might only be able to send a request by email.

State Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville

After that, Jernigan worked on an amendment to address concerns about requests made by people who never show up to view records, or pay for copies of records they had earlier agreed to pay for.

Jernigan’s suggested language is incorporated in the final amendment.

Specifically, the legislation allows custodians to deny requests to inspect public records if the requester had made two previous requests within a six-month period without coming to view the records within 15 business days both times and without good cause. In that case, a custodian is not required to fulfill a records request from that person for a period of six months after the second request that went unreviewed.

Another section says that if a requester received an estimate for copies, agreed to pay that estimated cost, and then did not pay the cost once the government made copies, a custodian does not have to fulfill another records request from that person until the cost is paid.

Ramsey outlined the process of the amendment to the committee: Initially, language was changed so that it did not unintentionally require custodians to receive records requests by Facebook, text or tweet, Ramsey said. Then it was made clear “who the electronic requests were sent to.”

“Then we got to the point with Representative Jernigan that we wanted to limit the bad players who really caused the conflict that brought this bill,” Ramsey said. “It is at a point where the comptroller’s office is satisfied, and the sponsor is satisfied and Representative Jernigan is satisfied that his portion is in there.”

A representative with the Tennessee Municipal League, Denise Paige, asked to testify Tuesday and said that the TML was concerned about cities in their membership that did not have email or internet service. Would they be required to receive requests by email if they didn’t have email?

State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown

State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, defended the bill’s language.

“In order to receive an open records request, you have to have received it. If you don’t have internet connectivity, which I can’t fathom a city out there that doesn’t have it, but I’ll just take your word for it…But if you don’t have internet connectivity, it would be pretty hard for someone to submit a public records requests via email,” Lamberth said.

State Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, said he thought the Tennessee Municipal League’s concerns were unfounded. “If they don’t have email or the internet, they couldn’t receive a request that way. If they do have it, they can receive it.”

Rogers noted that the fiscal note on the bill is zero because it would not require the purchase of new modes of communication.

“The intent is for our government entities and custodians not to have to purchase new equipment. If (the governments) have equipment that is part of their daily use, then that is how (citizens) should be able to submit requests,” Rogers said.

What do you think?