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Demand better access to public records

Johnson City Press • Feb 3, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Tennessee residents should be glad to hear that new Gov. Bill Lee has pledged to overhaul the state’s open records act to ensure better access.

For decades, the Tennessee legislature, state agencies and local governments have been undermining your right to know in a number of ways — legislative exemptions, access fees, unreasonable delays, red tape and technology that bury records.

Last year, a Tennessee Comptroller’s Office study found 538 exemptions to Tennessee's public records law, about six times as many as there were three decades ago. When the law was enacted in 1957, it had just two. Even more exemptions were introduced last year, including two from the Northeast Tennessee legislative delegation.

As we stated in March, the exponential increase in access limits is a disturbing trend that should ring alarm bells.

We were glad to see the Legislature initiate a special committee to review the open records law last session. Our colleagues at the Tennessean recently reported that Lee plans to build on the committee’s work. Press Secretary Laine Arnold told the Nashville-based newspaper the governor favors implementing a sunset provision on each exemption — it would expire at some juncture unless the state acts to renew it.

Lee also pledged to take a look at the fees associated with public records requests. Aside from the physical costs of making copies, many government offices also charge residents access fees for labor in compiling copies. According to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, some but not all offices have threshold amounts for any per-hour or per-page fees before you are charged.

Certainly, offices could be inundated with lengthy public records requests that would bog them down, preventing them from performing other duties. Kicking in a fee at a certain level makes sense to prevent abuse and offset real costs.

But in our view, providing open records is an essential function for all government offices. Our taxes already fund those offices. A threshold is reasonable. Blanket fees are not.

The governor’s spokeswoman reported that Lee planned to investigate the delays in fulfilling the public’s requests for open records. Speaking from experience, we know many law enforcement agencies will push requests to the backburner as long as they can — even employing legal maneuvers to avoid compliance.

Agencies also use technology, which should improve a person’s ability to find records, to do just the opposite. Having the sole public access computer behind a locked door in a room often tied up for other purposes is not accommodation. That’s just lip service. Some agencies do not even go that far — no paper records and no public computer.

Lee’s pledge included using technology to afford better access. That will require some rules on how that technology is applied.

Government employees often lose sight of who employs them and whose interests lie in the records they maintain. We hope the governor is successful in mitigating unreasonable barriers to the right to know in Tennessee. You should demand it.

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