Local Governments Attack Transparency
BY JUSTIN OWEN
“…[T]his section shall be broadly construed so as to give the fullest possible public access to public records,” states a portion of the Tennessee Open Records Act. While the law on open records might not be the most enthralling of topics, the ability of everyday citizens to hold their government accountable is a bedrock principle of free societies. An effort by some local government officials could thwart the intent of the Open Records Act and make it difficult—if not impossible for some—to obtain public records.
A bill has been proposed in the General Assembly that would allow local governments to charge citizens to inspect public records. That bill has been put on hold until next year, while the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel can study the matter.
Currently, the law allows governments to require payment to obtain physical copies of records. In addition, newer rules even permit government officials to charge requesters for the time they spend fulfilling records request. Some of these rules are reasonable. If someone wants copies of public records, shifting the burden of that cost from taxpayers to that person makes sense.
But what about merely inspecting records that already exist? To date, no law allows governments to charge citizens for showing up at the government office to view records, and rightfully so. First, there is little to no cost associated with this. Second, allowing governments to charge for inspecting records would particularly harm indigent and low-income citizens who otherwise can’t afford to pay for copies. Charging for inspection of public records is not too far removed from a poll tax.
The local governments behind this effort claim that there are bad actors who need to be reined in with a new rule on inspection of records. Undoubtedly, there are those who request documents frequently or in voluminous amounts, and maybe even some who fail to show up to inspect those records after requesting them.
However, there are bad actors everywhere in society. We don’t ban cars because a few people drink and drive. And we shouldn’t charge everyone to inspect records because a few people purportedly abuse the system.
The Beacon Center will be advocating for preserving Tennesseans’ right to shine light on their government by inspecting public records free of charge. We encourage you to do the same. To that end, the Office of Open Records Counsel has provided citizens with the ability to make their voices heard in the matter. Visit this website and fill out the survey to communicate the need to maintain transparency and openness for all Tennesseans.