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Many Speak Against Charging To View Public Records

Posted at 10:16 PM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-24 16:51:20-04

Members of the media and the public attended a sometimes emotional hearing on the future of public records in Tennessee.

The state's Office of Open Records is holding three public hearings across the state to collect comments on whether government officials should start charging fees for people to inspect public records.

Critics said it would make government less transparent. Supporters said some records requests put an undue burden on public officials.

The Office of Open Records will review all the comments from the hearings and make a final recommendation to the General Assembly about whether to change the public records law.

Currently, officials can charge when someone requests copies of public records, but there is no charge to simply inspect the records.

Most of those who spoke at the public hearing were opposed to charging the law.

"If we are going to be a government of the people, by the people -- then people should have the right to find that information," said state Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon.

NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams said access to public records is a crucial part of government oversight.

"What is being proposed here would give public officials the unprecedented tool to thwart the public's right to know," Williams said.

Reporters from other media also spoke out against the change.

Many citizens also commented. Environmental activist Bruce Wood said, "This is against the small individual who wants to go in and get these records."

But two people spoke in favor of the change.

Teresa Corlew with Nashville Electric Service (NES) said people should be charged if it takes more than three hours to compile a broad records request.

"It takes a large amount of staff time to research, compile and make records available in a suitable format for inspection," Corlew said.

Mt. Juliet city official Sheila Luckett said a former employee started requesting to inspect large personnel files which took days to prepare.

"They're taking time away from their regular duties that could be used to help the public," Luckett said.

The final speaker was a Fisk University student who said charging for records would basically end record requests from cash strapped college students.

"You're going to have to pay to even see records. It's going to put an undue financial burden on us," Justin Jones said.

The Office of Open Records will give a report to the Legislature in January.

Then lawmakers will decide whether to start charging to see public records.