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Tennessee should end open records confusion

Johnson City Press • May 31, 2018 at 8:00 AM

There's no question the public has a right to access records it pays to produce. But across Tennessee, local governments have confusing and conflicting laws governing that right, some of which even violate state law.

It's a mess created by the state when it issued a model policy to local governments that watchdogs like the Tennessee Press Association warned would only lead to confusion. The state needs to issue new standards, which also correct the mindset of too many local government officials that they, and not the citizens, own public records.

A study by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government finds conflicting, contradictory and arbitrary rules across the state for accessing public records. For instance, some localities refuse to allow residents to use a cell phone to photograph a public record despite that state law allows it. Just 5 percent of cities and counties — and no school systems in the entire state — have policies allowing photographs of records rather than paying for copies. And even then, some localities charge residents for taking a photo.

“It’s unreasonable,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG, which champions access to public records around the state. “If someone has a cell phone and just wants to take a picture of a document it’s essentially the same thing as taking a pencil and paper and writing the information down, just easier and faster.”

Two years ago, the Tennessee Legislature instructed all cities, counties and school districts to adopt records policies, using a model policy, the wording of which resulted in some of the confusion. TCOG, among others, called repeatedly for the state to revise or clarify its model, but were ignored. Had the state listened to voices of experience this would have been avoided.

Some officials argue that persons requesting records shouldn’t be able to just snap a picture of a record without paying for it, that they ought to be reimbursed for the time they spend finding the records and in some cases redacting them. But they're already being paid by the taxpayers to maintain these records and any time it takes to retrieve them is simply part of the job and the cost of doing the public's business.

As well, some localities demand identification to ensure that only state residents are given access to records. And some refuse to allow e-mail requests for records. It shouldn't matter where a requester lives — a public record is just that. And the state allows e-mailed requests and therefore, so should localities.

TCOG's study is a great public service in exposing a huge problem that needs to be remedied immediately.

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