State Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville) has introduced a bill, HB 58, which allows requests for public information to be submitted by all official modes of communication, including in person, via telephone, fax, email or other electronic means.
“Public Records – As introduced, requires a records custodian, if that records custodian requires a request for copies of public records to be in writing, to accept a handwritten request submitted in person or by mail, an email request, or a request on an electronic form submitted online; requires a request for a records request form to be provided by the most expeditious means possible,” the Tennessee General Assembly website says of the bill.
Rep. Rogers told the House State Government Subcommittee during hearings last week that her revisions seek to make it easier for the general public to make their information requests. In addition, she said, her bill will eliminate current ambiguities in the law to help prevent lawsuits in the future.
The bill passed in that subcommittee on Tuesday, but not without some controversy that could impact its passage at the full State Government Committee meeting next week.
The Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) is a compilation of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) Title 10 Public Libraries, Archives and Records, Chapter 7 Public Records, Part 5 Miscellaneous Provisions, sections 501 through 516. Currently, the TPRA does not address the communication methods that a records custodian must accept from the requestor of a public records.
The TPRA does stipulate that a records custodian may not require that request be in writing or assess a charge to view a public record unless otherwise required by law. The TPRA does permit a records custodian to require that a request for copies of public records be in writing or on the office of open records counsel form.
The lack of direction has caused confusion on the part of the records custodian and the requestor as to the manner in which a request is considered appropriate.
This is evidenced by the lawsuit filed by Tennessee resident Ken Jakes in April 2014, when his public records request to the Sumner County Board of Education for the school system’s public records policy was denied because their policy stated that all records requests must be made in person or in writing and mailed through the U.S. Postal Service.
The Judge ruled that Sumner County schools violated the public records law, but the school system has appealed and has accumulated at least $238,000 in legal bills thus far.
The bill does not require a government entity to purchase any additional equipment. As Rogers stated, “Whatever communications they (the government entity) are regularly using for official business, then the citizens ought to be able to make requests via that.” The provision is intended to be sensitive to “rurals” that may not have the technological capability to do official business via email.
State Reps. Ramsey, Sanderson and Jernigan expressed some concern about taking control away from the local governments.
Jernigan also struggled balancing local control with accessibility by requestors with severe disabilities who can’t write, have no means of transportation but can speak into a computer to send an email.
Chairman Sanderson took his concern for local governments further by saying this was “one of the reasons his mayor was up there today” and later asked Rogers if she thought “the locals might fear that the ease of email might lead to more frivolous requests.”
Rogers said she didn’t think so, that people and media ask for information for specific reasons, that someone wouldn’t go to that much effort to put together an email which requires some thought behind it. Rogers added, “I don’t think it’s going to be arbitrary.”
It would seem that all official means of communication to and from a government entity would also be obviously applicable, appropriate and acceptable between a records custodian and a requestor. But the vote from the five-member subcommittee squeaked through at 3-2, making the bill’s passage by 6 votes through the full committee meeting today, Tuesday, February 21, uncertain.
House Government Committee membership and contact information and the video from the February 14 subcommittee meeting can be found here. http://www.capitol.tn.gov/house/committees/state-gov.html