March 10, 2015
In an ironic twist of fate, citizens have always been at odds with the bodies that are meant to represent them. More specifically, those seeking public records from governing and tax-funded organizations often run into obstacles in retrieving the documents that they’re looking for. These obstacles come in a number of formats, and can range from simply ignoring a request and hoping that the person filing it doesn’t have the means or knowledge to take legal action, to simply charging fees so high that the average person cannot afford to pay for retrieval. In other instances, convoluted processes and bureaucracy clutter up the process and make it take so long that people simply give up.
All methods are understandably seen as underhanded by the average citizen, but that doesn’t stop them from being employed. Now, the state government of Tennessee is looking to push through a bill that would effectively legalize the charging of expensive fees for those filing certain public records requests.
The bill seeks to directly change the Tennessee public records act, and allow public entities to charge hourly rates for all work associated with the carrying out of a public records request. While not all agencies would readily admit this would result in higher fees than any flat-fee systems currently in place, it’s not hard to see that this would be the case. The Tennessee School Boards Association, for example, is one of the biggest proponents of the bill, stating that their staff time is being eaten into by public records requests. Of course, if their proposed answer is to pass the bill in question rather than hire more staff to handle the requests, the not-so-hard-to-see result is that capacity to handle requests will not, in fact, go up, but instead the cost of complying with the requests will be transferred directly to the person or organization that wants the information.
While there is such a thing as public records “trolling,” in which those masquerading as concerned citizens look for violations that they can use as the basis for a lawsuit and draw large settlements in court, these are in the minority. Most records requests from the school district will have been filed by concerned parents, and even more likely a journalist working on a piece for his or her publication.
Some have argued that such a bill is a thinly veiled attempt at 1) simply reducing public records requests or 2) making the public pay for these organizations’ inefficiencies; in any event, the goal is not to improve public records access or response times for the citizens these bodies serve. Most offices, according to an article in the Tennessean, don’t actually track the records requests they receive. If they did, they might be able to see their most popular requests and simply setup their departments to better handle these.
This option, however, seems more time consuming than simply trying to inconvenience people so much that records requests just fall and die out to a degree. While several groups oppose the bill, it will take a lot to stop it, especially considering that those voting on it come from offices which have to handle public records requests themselves and probably wouldn’t mind being rid of the burden.