Tennessee is considering a proposal to charge citizens to inspect public records

TENNESSEE — The Volunteer State is considering adding a fee to inspect public records, which has sparked a heated debate between public access advocates who are concerned the fee could inhibit journalists’ and citizens’ abilities to keep tabs on the government and record-keepers who say they’re overwhelmed with requests.

The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel is seeking feedback on a proposal to charge citizens to inspect public records in addition to the current fee for making copies.

Last week, the OORC held public hearings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson. Of those that spoke at the hearings, those opposed to fees outnumbered supporters about 10 to 1.

“The answer is no,” said Tennessee Press Association president Jack McElroy at the hearing in Knoxville. “Much of that cost would be borne by newspapers whose role and responsibility is to monitor the workings of government.”

Dorothy Bowles, professor emerita at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, worried about the impact the proposal could have on student journalists’ education.

“If I were still teaching and if this bill were passed, I would no longer be able to teach my students how to go to a public office and inspect a public record because typically students don’t have money to spend on this,” she said at the hearing.

Knox County Schools public affairs director Melissa Ogden said while she doesn’t support the proposed change to add an inspection fee, she said there needs to be some reform.

“During the past two to three years as my role as public affairs director, I’ve seen requests for public records increase exponentially,” she said at the hearing.

In 2008, Tennessee implemented a cost for the duplication of public records. The charge includes the cost of reproduction — for example, the University of Tennessee System’s Office of Communications charges $0.15 for a black and white copy — and the cost of staff labor past one hour to produce the duplicated records.

But Tennessee Coalition for Open Government president Deborah Fisher said in an interview that some agencies’ charges have become excessive.

“The Department of Children’s Services came up with $55,000 to get records on child deaths to the Tennessean,” she said.

Freedom of information advocates claim that part of the problem with the current system is there is no way to know the cost of labor upfront, and no way to dispute the cost afterwards.

Supporters of the fee for inspection argued at the hearing that people could circumvent the cost by simply inspecting the records rather than requesting duplicates. They suggested that adding this amendment to the Tennessee Public Records Act would work as a cost-saving measure.

“Supposedly this is money that would be saved by government, but actually the opposite would prove to be true,” said McElroy, president of the Tennessee Press Association. “Watchdog journalism provides an important check and balance on government waste and without that public scrutiny, more excesses will emerge.”

State Rep. Jim Tracy, a Republican, submitted the original bill on behalf of the Tennessee School Board Association. The bill has since been pulled and the Office of Open Records was asked to produce a report of possible solutions on dealing with large records requests, which could include charging for inspection of records.

“We have folks that may come in and ask for 4,000 emails of all the folks that are public servants in the area and we want to know how to handle that,” Tracy said last spring before the Senate State and Local Government committee.

Ogden gave examples of large records requests to the Knox school district, including email correspondence between individuals spanning years and information about physical plant upgrades over the past decade that filled 36 binders and a banker box of records.

“So when records of this magnitude are requested, it often times takes a matter of months to pull the information together,” she said. “This in essence equates to many unbudgeted man hours for many people.”

Bowles took issue with the notion that records request are an unbudgeted expense. “I really don’t agree because the law says that agencies are to create, maintain, and make available to citizens. So they should budget accordingly. The taxpayers are paying for that,” she said.

Making documents available online as an ongoing effort was a common suggestion by those on all sides of the debate.

“I think with education and training of personnel within these offices, personnel that make less money than the attorneys, they could save money,” Bowles said.

The Tennessee Office of Open Records will deliver their report to the General Assembly by Jan. 15. They are accepting comments through Sept. 30, via a survey or to comments.open.records@cot.tn.gov.

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at 202-974-6318 or by email.