Tennessee officials are contemplating a price hike for access to public records, saying they’re trying to limit the costs of serving people who abuse the state’s open records laws.
Under current law, the state cannot charge for inspection of public records, but can charge for copies – sometimes thousands of dollars.
Now, prompted by the Tennessee Association of School Boards, state lawmakers and Tennessee’s Open Records Counsel say they may charge people merely to look at official documents.
TASB spokesman Lee Harrell on Wednesday told Tennessee Watchdog that he and other officials merely want to start a conversation about people who abuse the state’s open records laws.
“There have been several cases with school systems as well as cities and counties where the requests for inspections have been very burdensome, and sometimes people don’t even show up to review the records,” Harrell said.
“Sometimes 10 hours of prep goes into making these materials available, and the person will only come in for 10 minutes.”
But Justin Owen, president of the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, says these problems likely aren’t as rampant as Harrell makes out.
“The reality is people drive drunk, and we don’t ban cars across the board. We don’t take draconian measures that punish everyone for the actions of a few. That’s not how society works,” Owen said.
“There are other ways to go about it to hold people accountable if they are abusing the process. Make them pay some bond or deposit to ensure you will get your money if they don’t show up after you’ve spent all this time working on it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, members of the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government oppose this idea.
“We have opposed the current proposal because it has the potential to be used as a club by the government to be used against opponents or critics,” said TPA spokesman Frank Gibson.
“The legislation allowing labor charges for copies has been abused over and over.”
“A few years ago, the Department of Children’s Services tried to charge media organizations more than $55,000 for records dealing with child deaths, which included mileage and labor to drive the records to Nashville from far corners of the state,” according to the TCOG statement.
TCOG spokeswoman Deborah Fisher said Tuesday there’s yet another reason to oppose charging people to inspect public records.
“To describe it in a different way, when an entity is allowed to charge per hour labor fees it does not encourage efficiency,” Fisher said.
“To be specific, if an agency gets a request where the response to the records is going to be large, they will get to charge per hour to fulfill that request. It becomes a revenue stream. However, if it’s free it gives you another incentive to say, ‘Hey, can you talk about this request because you’ve written it so broadly that you may not want everything?’”
Fisher also said TASB officials have yet to offer any concrete evidence people are abusing the open records system as it currently exists.
To that point, Harrell cited a recent example in Sumner County, where he said one open records request took more than 80 hours to comply with.
“We’re not trying to make money off this process. We’re just trying to cover costs,” Harrell said. “There are bad players on both sides of this issue.”