Guest: Should we pay for a look at public records?
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By JACK MCELROY

Lots is happening in the area of open government lately. In recent columns I've talked about legislation that would control access to police videos and about a proposed Supreme Court rule that would limit reporters' use of electronic devices in courtrooms.

Next month the state will hold hearings on an access issue as important as any: Should government agencies be allowed to charge citizens simply to see public records?

As the law now stands, offices can charge only for copying records. That wouldn't be a big deal if just the cost of the copies were involved. But when copies are requested, an agency can bill a citizen for the cost of gathering and preparing the records for copying, as well.

That can add up, especially if the office is uncooperative. A few years ago, for instance, the Tennessean asked for records of children who had died after being brought to the attention of the Department of Children's Services. The state said it would cost more than $55,000 to make copies of the records. That included the expense of employees transporting files from all of the DCS offices around the state to Nashville for redacting and copying, then hand-carrying them back to their offices.

Happily, though, the law doesn't allow agencies to charge citizens to "inspect" records. If you want to take a gander at the latest school board agenda, city audit report or sheriff's budget, you can look for free.

Obviously this is important to citizens who don't have a lot of money to pay for records. It's important to news organizations, too.
At the News Sentinel, we make a lot of records requests. But we always ask to inspect first, before we request copies. Then the agencies can charge us a prorated fee for the costs associated with gathering and preparing the records we really need.

In fairness, governments in and around Knox County are pretty cooperative when it comes to costs. But elsewhere in the state, some agencies complain bitterly that their employees are too busy to respond to burdensome records requests.

During the last legislative session the Tennessee School Boards Association got a couple of legislators to sponsor a bill to let government offices charge citizens to see records, as well as to copy them. The legislation was referred to the Open Records Counsel, part of the state Comptroller's Office, for study before the next session.

Thus, the upcoming public hearings, scheduled for Sept. 15-17 in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson. The Knoxville session will be 4-6 p.m. Sept. 15 at 5401 Kingston Pike, Building 2, Suite 350. Participants will be asked if records-keepers should be allowed to charge citizens to look at records, and if so, how and how much.

The money involved is not insignificant. Although the latest bill didn't include an estimate, a similar bill introduced in 2011 put the price tag at about $1.7 million a year. That's a barrier that's sure to discourage citizens, and the media, from asking too often to see what their state and local governments are doing.

Some officials may have legitimate issues with voluminous, even frivolous, public-records requests. But there must be a better solution than a pay-for-access process that further isolates Tennesseans from the government that they are supposed to own.

Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300 or at editor@knoxnews.com.

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