We were troubled by news this week that not only are state officials considering a move to allow government offices to charge a fee to inspect public records, but the seeds of this pernicious idea, which could restrict free access to documents under certain circumstances, seem to be germinating at the local level.
Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel has scheduled a series of hearings, along with a comment period, to get feedback from the public on a proposal that has received glowing support from the Tennessee School Boards Association.
Under the legislation, which was tabled in the last legislative session but is far from a dead letter, government offices “may require” a written request to inspect records and can begin charging members of the public labor costs after the initial hour of work in producing requested material.
Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, who plans to speak in favor of the proposal at the hearing in Knoxville, said he would like to see “some restrictions” on the scope of record requests made to government offices to prevent “broad, massive requests that encompass multiple offices that would shut down part of our local government.”
As part of his campaign for the mayor’s office last year, Bradshaw made cutting spending a hallmark of his platform, and during a Committee of 100 meeting shortly after winning the election, he expressed a commitment to open and transparent government. We don’t know whether Bradshaw’s current stance on public records represents a significant change of opinion or just a re-thinking of the challenges facing local government after a Lenoir City resident filed a sweeping request earlier this year, resulting in what Bradshaw characterized as thousands of dollars in expenses and scores of extra man hours.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m in favor of restricting access,” Bradshaw said. “I think there’s got to be a line somewhere that it can’t shut a department down.”
What is clear is restricting free access to documents that were produced on the taxpayers’ dime will set a dangerous precedent, especially in a state with some of the least robust sunshine laws in the country.
As the law currently stands, anyone off the street should be allowed to inspect public records free of charge and for any reason, so long as the documents do not fall under an exemption as outlined in Tennessee Code Annotated. The plain truth is allowing government offices the option to charge residents to access records will, sooner or later, lead to less, not more, open government.
We certainly share Bradshaw’s concerns about far-ranging open records requests, and asking local government to run up a $8,000-$9,000 bill to fulfill a single request seems excessive. Indeed, asking for every shred of correspondence between the mayor and 10 county commissioners for a three-month period seems like an untargeted fishing expedition to us, but fielding record requests, frivolous or not, comes with the territory of running a publicly funded office.
How is it within the purview of a mayor, or any other government official for that matter, to make judgment calls on whether open records requests are egregious or not? Public servants are simply charged with managing the public’s resources, including records. Disseminating that information on request from the public is included in the job description, no matter how limited or wide the scope.
Frankly, if officials really wanted to save some cash, routine records requests could be processed in-house without depending so heavily on the county attorney to rubber stamp every sheet of paper before documents are released to the public. Officials are seemingly capable of applying state law in other areas of county business; why should records requests be any different?
In any case, deciding that a particular request is a “waste of taxpayer dollars,” as Bradshaw put it, is not his call to make. Those who are being paid public salaries to manage taxpayer services should remember for whom they work.