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Public records are truly for the people

Johnson City Press • Feb 18, 2019 at 8:23 AM

It’s important to remember “public” is the key word in public records. These records belong to the people, not to politicians or bureaucrats.

Every Tennessee citizen has a right to obtain certain information under the state’s Public Records Act. The law directs the courts to construe the act broadly “so as to give the fullest possible access to public records.”

Even so, enforcement of Tennessee’s public records law often ranks among the lowest in the nation because aggrieved citizens are forced to engage in costly litigation to inspect public records and documents. The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel was created to assist Tennesseans who encounter problems in accessing open records.

There is the vexing problem of state officials looking to close key public records. As Press staff writer Zach Vance reported last week, state lawmakers are looking to restrict requests for documents that are now open to Tennesseans.

One such measure is HB0626/SB0590 filed by House Majority Leader Rep. William Lambert, R-Cottontown. His bill would penalize Tennesseans who use public records requests as a form of “harassment,” which the bill defines as making three or more public record requests within one year “in a manner that causes a reasonable person to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened or harassed.”

The Associated Press reported Lambert filed this bill in response to the city of Gallatin receiving 130 public records requests in one year from a citizen. Such cases are the exception, not the rule, which raises the question: Do we really need a new law that could be used to discourage Tennesseans from rightfully seeking the records they are entitled to inspect?

Two other bills would restrict vital public information on traffic accident reports and 911 calls. HB1107/SB1346 would conceal information about people involved in traffic accidents from police reports. Some of the cited information, like a person’s driver’s license number and insurance documentation, is already confidential.

HB0335/SB0386 would amend the Open Records Act to conceal 911 calls, transmissions and recordings of emergency communications. The bill would allow a 911 call to be released with the written consent of the caller involved.

Both measures threaten the transparency Tennesseans have come to expect from their public records. It also severely hamstrings the news media when it comes to reporting how and where these public services are being delivered and to whom.

On a positive note, Tennesseans for Open Government backs a bill that eliminates a problem in transparency when it comes naming businesses who are getting major tax breaks from the state. HB1265/SB0513 would remove an exemption that conceals the names of businesses receiving tax credits for economic development, how much those credits are and whether those businesses are fulfilling the agreed-upon terms with the state.

The people of Tennessee have a right to see the names of those who are are benefiting from such public programs.

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