News-Sentinel: ‘Open records bill fine without changes’

From the Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 17, 2008:

We thought Tennessee lawmakers were seeking to strengthen the state’s Open Records Law, but amendments recently presented by a House subcommittee indicate otherwise and would set openness in local government back decades.

The pernicious items in question agreed to by voice vote of the House State Government subcommittee last week:

  • Cities with a population of 155,000 or more would have additional time to respond to requests for public records, seven business days instead of five.
  • Citizens making records requests would have to pay a fee if the records search takes longer than an hour.
  • Only Tennesseans may request records in writing.
  • Elected and appointed officials should be notified about any records request made about them.

The original version of the bill reflected an agreement between local government groups and media organizations, according to Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. It should remain that way.

In other areas, the bill is a solid step for openness. It requires various agencies that serve local governments, including utilities, to develop a program to educate public officials about open meetings laws and how to remain compliant.

The bill also creates the office of open records counsel to answer questions and provide information to officials and residents regarding public records. The counsel also gathers information on problems and provides public education on the open records and open meetings laws.

Notwithstanding these positive highlights, the recent amendments pose a hindrance to the openness that state officials said they needed after the Tennessee Waltz scandal three years ago that resulted in the indictment of five sitting or former lawmakers on charges of bribery and corruption. All have been convicted or pleaded guilty.

Allowing employees in larger cities two extra days to avoid their duty to the public might be a backhanded statement about their inefficiency. Requiring fees is a slippery slope that legislators should avoid. Gibson rightly worries that records keepers could charge as much as they like, making it difficult to get public records.

Limiting open-records requests only to Tennesseans is particularly short-sighted. The Volunteer State is not a fortress protected by some huge moat. Tennessee is bordered by eight other states and has at least a half dozen interstates passing through it. Businesses such as insurance companies as well as private individuals and news gathering organizations should have access to public records in the state.

Finally, the notification requirement is a thinly veiled attempt to legalize intimidation of people requesting public records. It is a clear indication that elected officials sometimes forget they are public servants accountable to those who elect them.

This bill with its amendments is to come before the House State and Local Government Committee Tuesday, April 22. We urged the committee to scrap the amendments that are designed to hinder openness and approve the original bill that shows progress on open records.


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