Public records are yours; you shouldn’t have to pay for them

Published 9:52 am Monday, September 14, 2015

Technology should make government records more accessible to he public, not less so. But the price of access — long restricted to the actual cost of the materials used to copy documents — may be going up.
The Office of Public Records is conducting public records hearings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson this week to ask the question: Should the Tennessee Public Records Act permit the government to charge citizens to inspect public records?
It is a serious proposal that Tennessee legislators considered earlier this year because the Tennessee Public Records Act presently prohibits charging Tennesseans for inspecting open public records
Tennessee’s open record law has one purpose: to give the public access to the workings of government. Anyone in the state can walk into any public agency, from the local water district to the governor’s office, and ask to see copies of everything from meeting minutes to emails on a broad range of subjects. It’s up to the agency to grant those requests.
Presently, citizens don’t to pay to inspect public documents. The bill introduced in the most recent session of the Legislature, however, would require a fee schedule just to inspect them and that all requests be made in writing. That creates an undue burden on citizens because it will make it too costly for the ordinary Tennessean.
The House bill was taken off the legislative calendar March 25. The companion Senate bill was assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee’s general subcommittee March 31, but no further action has been taken so far.
On Aug. 12, however, the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s office sent out a news release stating: “The Office of Open Records Counsel has been asked by the Tennessee General Assembly to review issues surrounding the inspection of public records, and the office is asking Tennesseans to weigh in.”
That is an indication that this bill is not dead, and we as citizens need to weigh in on the issue.
Charging citizens to view public records has the strong potential to be a public records barrier, allowing agencies to charge exorbitant fees for sharing what rightfully belongs to the people. It would make it easier also for some government officials to block citizen access to records. Perhaps some citizens would no longer be able to view public records because they could not afford to pay the fees.
The change would roll back Tennessee’s legal tradition of favoring government transparency and give officials who wish to limit access a new club to use to hinder access to records they don’t want anyone to see.
In essence, it would create a new exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act: A government record is exempt from the Public Records Act if a citizen can’t pay the price set by the government official to see it.
Government officials often find it annoying or time-consuming to fill records requests, sometimes citing staff and budget constraints. But budget problems and inconvenience are no excuse to ignore the foundation of Tennessee’s open-government laws: the right of the people to examine records created by public officials (whose salaries are paid by taxpayers).
Why is it bad to block the public’s access to government records?
Public records belong to the citizens of Tennessee. They pay for these records through their taxes. Government officials are public servants and should make it a very high priority to honor the right of citizens to information about their government. The right of access to public records long predates the Tennessee Public Records Act. The Act should not become a tool to restrict access to records that clearly ought to be public.
Broad and free access to public records is essential to holding government officials accountable. Government serves citizens, not the other way around. Citizens must know what their public officials and employees are doing, and how they are doing it. If public officials and employees get to choose what citizens get to know about what government is doing, the constitutional power vested in citizens in a democracy is destroyed.
The people shouldn’t have to pay to see what is theirs.

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