Updated at 10:25 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, 2018.
Some government agencies in Tennessee are making it difficult for citizens to access public records and, in some instances, violating state law, a newly released audit shows.
Open records advocates had hoped a state law passed in 2016 would make it easier for people to access information that should be publicly available to citizens.
But the audit by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government found some agencies had adopted rules so rigid they threatened to slow down or thwart the process of getting records.
"It makes people feel like they don't have a right to public records when they have to jump through all these unreasonable hoops," Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG, said of the rules that many government agencies had adopted in their public records policy. She described it as part of a "locked-down" culture within some government entities where citizens need to get a type of security clearance just to get records of ordinary government business, even minutes to a public meeting.
The Tennessee Legislature passed a law two years ago that required every government entity in the state to establish a written public records policy by July 2017. Each policy was to include details on how citizens can make a public records request and the contact information of the person who could get them the records.
As part of its audit, TCOG sought public records policies of 306 government entities, including counties, school districts and cities, from October 2017 to March 2018. It was able to obtain and examine 259 policies.
A number of government agencies surveyed — 15 percent — did not respond to requests to mail or email a copy of their public records policy, the audit found. Nine agencies insisted that the only way to get a policy would be for someone to appear in person. Some said their agency did not have a policy.
And while new technology is evolving to make it much easier to take copies of documents using cameras on phones and apps, 48 percent of the policies obtained and examined wouldn't allow it, the audit found. Many of the policies — 41 percent — made no mention of whether citizens could use personal equipment, such as a cell phone, to make copies. Only 5 percent of the policies allowed it, according to the audit.
Most of the policies examined require a Tennessee driver's license or other ID to prove state residency as a condition to inspecting records or getting copies of them, even though those documents aren't required under state law, Fisher said.
The biggest problem with ID requirements, Fisher said, is they can be used to delay fulfilling public records requests, particularly when someone is notified about it several days after they made the request.
Despite a recommendation by the state Office of Open Records Counsel that fee waivers should be considered in some circumstances, a majority of public records policies surveyed — 59 percent — declined to waive fees for copies of records if they fell under a certain amount. The Office of Open Records Counsel had said that sometimes the cost of handling and processing payments would actually be higher than the small fee the office generated from the records. Of the 41 percent of policies that did offer a fee waiver, the audit found, the median fee that would be waived was $5.
An even larger number — 66 percent — decided against allowing custodians to waive fees in certain circumstances, such as when records were considered in the "public good."
The best news out of the audit for the public, Fisher said, is that 84 percent of the agencies included in their policy either the title or name of a contact, along with a phone number, of someone at the agency who could help people with their public records requests. While she had hoped that all entities would have included a phone number, she said the development is in the right direction. In addition, some of the policies could be found on a government agency's website.