Two Tennessee newspapers editorialized against a legislative proposal to charge citizens new fees to access public records today.
David Plazas, opinion engagement editor of The Tennessean and Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, published pieces in advance of the three September hearings planned in Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson to gather input on a proposal to change the law to allow local government and state agencies to charge fees if someone wants to inspect a public record.
Currently, the law requires that inspection be free, although charges can be made if the citizen wants copies.
Read the columns here:
McElroy points out that the real problem is in the per-hour labor fees that would be authorized by the law. He writes:
The money involved is not insignificant. Although the latest bill didn’t include an estimate, a similar bill introduced in 2011 put the price tag at about $1.7 million a year. That’s a barrier that’s sure to discourage citizens, and the media, from asking too often to see what their state and local governments are doing.
Some officials may have legitimate issues with voluminous, even frivolous, public-records requests. But there must be a better solution than a pay-for-access process that further isolates Tennesseans from the government that they are supposed to own.
Plazas said it was a victory when the two bills proposing the new fees were taken off notice last year (S.B. 328 and H.B. 315) saying citizens should have:
…broad, open and free (or affordable) access as possible to documents that tell our state how government operates, not just for the sake of information and education, but also to hold officials accountable.
However, on Aug. 12, the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s office sent out a news release stating: “The Office of Open Records Counsel (OORC) has been asked by the Tennessee General Assembly to review issues surrounding the inspection of public records, and the office is asking Tennesseans to weigh in.”
That is an indication that this fight is far from over, and citizens should take this opportunity to tell Tennessee government to serve their best interests.
Citizens can submit comments about whether they believe fees should be charged, and why or why not, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
They can also fill out a survey that will give the Open Records Counsel information the nature of their public records request (how many, how long it takes to fulfill, etc…). Government officials are encouraged to fill out a similar survey.