Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Act Now To Halt New Fees For Public Record Access

The state is creating a whole new fee system for anyone who seeks access to public records, and even though the public can offer comments on this new proposal, you only have until noon Thursday to do so. Many thanks to R. Neal for pointing this out on his blog:

Dorothy Bowles, U.T. Professor and member of the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists, alerts us to a proposal that would make it more difficult and expensive for citizens and journalists to access public records.

The deadline for public comment, which was only announced this week, is noon tomorrow (Thursday) and the hearing is on Friday. You can submit your comments here:

She explains more ...

From Dorothy Bowles:

As you know, the recently enacted TN Open Records Act established a legal counsel's office to set fees for record requests in an attempt to have some consistency across the state.

Unfortunately, the statute allows for BOTH copying costs and labor costs.

The statute also established an Advisory Committee on Open Government, and I was appointed one of the members of that committee.

FRIDAY (yes, day after tomorrow) a public hearing will take place on a proposal that was only this week distributed by the legal counsel's office. Written comments will be accepted through NOON tomorrow.

Written comments can be submitted via e-mail to

I will attend the hearing and do everything I can to have open records without huge fees. But I expect that records custodians and their bosses across the state will storm the hearing. After all, it's part of their regular workday, whereas citizens would have to take a day off work to attend.

We need folks who believe that the taxpayers own public records and should be able to examine them to send comments to Nashville, but time is short."

I'm going to summarize what my email will say - and I really encourage you to sound off on this too. It is truly a now or never situation.

On The Topic of New Fees For Public Records:

First let me say this opportunity needs to be set at a time AFTER the public has had adequate notice. I do my best to stay informed on this topic and still have only a few hours to respond. This is reprehensible and certainly appears that the goal is to eliminate and not encourage public participation.

However, since any postponement is highly unlikely, I write to encourage you to set any fees at a very lowest level.

Public agencies and officials are already earning salaries drawn from taxation for their labor. While a fee for making copies of records might be defensible (again a nominal fee) to add even more costs is ultimately a method of repelling the public from gaining information about their own government. This is nothing short of a new Tax On Information. Agencies will not be creating new records, simply providing copies of existing information. To consider it otherwise is simply wrong and at worst is an attempt to quell any search for public information.

The state already has a very poor history responding to the previous laws covering access to public records. The state already ranks near the very bottom for access to public records. Many of the case by case examples as well as audits of agencies which supply this information are available via the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government website and I encourage this panel to review that information. In a nutshell, compliance with existing laws hovers around 65%.

Adding new costs for information requests will again be a deterrent not an enhancement.

Already, the individual must bear the costs of challenging violations of the public records and meeting laws. A state official might face a fine of $50 for violating this law, but only if a member of the public pursues the matter. Adding fees for copying records and for the "labor" could easily cost a resident much more than than $50.

I'm afraid I see no reason to create new costs for a system that currently barely works. And even if state agencies responded to requests for information at least 90% of the time, it is work already covered by their existing duties, not some unheralded new task forced upon them.

In short, I strongly oppose new fees for access to public records and hope this panel will discover ways to enhance compliance with the law by state agencies and not burden the residents with higher costs, and will encourage more education for state officials in offices requiring these records be provided, and will help foster a more transparent and accountable public service sector.

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