Q: Who do government officials work for?
A: The public. You, me, our neighbors.
Problem is, government officials too often forget that. And when public records are involved, government agencies move with the willingness of a cat being forced to take a bath. When stalling doesn’t work, they sometimes slap extraordinarily high costs on the records.
Last week, the clerk at the City of Ringgold repeatedly stymied our reporters’ efforts to get public records. Even after the city’s lawyer told the newspaper’s lawyer that the records would be available, the reporter drove to Ringgold and was refused the records. After four days of wrangling and several calls from our lawyer to theirs, the clerk released the records, which detailed the scandalous events that led to the firing of a Ringgold police officer.
But it should not come to this. It shouldn’t take lawyers to get public servants to release public records. The newspaper has attorneys, but individual citizens may not have access to, or may not be able to afford, lawyers.
Sometimes, even after officials concede that the records are public, they seek hefty sums of money before actually making them public. To be fair, government agencies are allowed to charge for the staff time used to gather records. Still, some of their charges seem excessive and some agencies claim it will take bureaucrats weeks to gather or sort records when the average reporter could do it in a few afternoons.
As an example, Georgia Department of Corrections officials want to charge the Times Free Press $16,772 for records related to Hays State Prison. The newspaper has been reporting on four inmate deaths there in six weeks.
Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services wants to charge media outlets more than $55,584 for records on child fatalities and near-fatalities. Officials say it will take more than 1,700 staff hours to assemble the records, including driving the records from offices around the state to Nashville and then back again. Why these paper records are not electronically available is a mystery.
Our readers — who are taxpayers and voters — deserve to know what went wrong at Hays State and the Department of Children’s Services.
On a larger scale, the public has the right to know how its government is functioning — or not.
The Times Free Press has multiple roles: to educate and inform; to entertain; to showcase the things that are working well in our community and question the things that aren’t; and, perhaps most importantly, to expose government failure. Without the right records, we cannot do that.
Of course, that’s exactly why some officials make it so hard to get the right records.
Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at email@example.com. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.