After all, who owns public records?

After all, who owns public records?

March 24th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

Alarming efforts are under way in Tennessee to make it harder for the public to stay informed about the actions of government.

Already, elected officials in Chattanooga and East Ridge are supporting state legislation that would let them remove legal ads - which advise the public about meetings and important activities of government - from the Times Free Press and post them only on barely read government websites.

And now under consideration in the General Assembly is legislation that would sharply increase the cost citizens pay to get public records. Under the proposal, the government agency that houses a record could charge "actual labor costs" to the person seeking that record if it takes an agency employee more than one hour to "locate, retrieve, review, redact, and copy" it.

That's preposterous! Government may already charge reasonable copying fees. And because government already has up to seven days to fulfill a request, it's not as if government workers must "drop everything they're doing" to focus on records requests, Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government pointed out in a phone interview.

Does it take time for government workers to fulfill records requests? Of course, just as it takes time for them to perform their other required duties. But as Gibson noted, Tennesseans already pay - with their taxes - for the collection and maintenance of public records. "Why," he asks, "should they also have to pay the government to see those records?"

Is there a risk that someone will deliberately make a nuisance of himself by requesting records he really has no desire to see? Sure, but that's the exception. Most individuals, media organizations and other groups don't have the time or inclination to go around making frivolous records requests at government offices, and they seek records in good faith.

Charging labor costs to those who seek public records would undermine the public's right to know. Many people would avoid making records requests at all, for fear of being hit with a big fee if it should take a worker more than an hour to process the request.

This bill should be defeated.