House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) said in a statement released late Friday afternoon he wants Tennessee’s state and local governments to make more public records available online for the sake of what he called “greater government transparency.”
The statement released by his office continued:
I am calling on both state departments and local governments to evaluate all records that may be placed online and to explore ways to increase availability,” said Leader Lamberth.
“Republicans in the legislature stand for more transparency for our citizens,” said Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin). “I am fully supportive of Leader Lamberth’s efforts, and I appreciate his desire to lead on this issue.”
Lamberth is currently working with all interested parties and constituents on an amendment to House Bill 626 in efforts to streamline the process of open records requests, protect record custodians, increase online accessibility, and to enhance government transparency.
“In this day and age with all of our technology, we should be able to fulfill open records requests online,” added Lamberth.
Some people who were angry with him Friday morning might never have guessed he’d say such a thing later in the day. After all, these were the same folks who took to social media to disapprove of HB626 as originally introduced, which Lamberth sponsored.
Today’s statement that he is “working . . . on an amendment to House Bill 626 in efforts to streamline the process of open records requests, protect record custodians, increase online accessibility, and to enhance government transparency” appears to be a direct response to that public disapproval.
If passed into law, HB626 could restrict the public’s access to government records. In extreme cases, it would grant government officials the power to punish certain people who ask for three or more public documents in a one-year timespan.
Leslie Ann McQuiddy of Nashville posted that “they are public records, and we are allowed ACCESS.”
“Any more questions?” McQuiddy asked.
“Stupid, greedy politicians.”
Several other people, meanwhile, posted that this bill went against the U.S. Constitution, was underhanded, and that they already have a difficult enough time as is accessing public records.
Justin Cornett of Knoxville, whose Facebook page lists him as a field director for Americans for Prosperity, said he had a more constructive suggestion.
“Come on man… it’s 2019, we have technology, why not use it?” Cornett asked.
The Star asked Doug Kufner, Lamberth’s spokesman, if all the criticism prompted his boss to take a kinder and gentler approach to public records access.
“I think these are ongoing discussions, and I think this is part of the conversation that has come related to discussions of the bill,” Kufner said.
“I think other people have expressed the need for more transparency and openness as it relates to government. Obviously, the leader has been firm in fighting for transparency ever since his time here in the General Assembly. The goal is to call upon local governments to evaluate all the records placed online right now and find a way to increase that. This is part of an ongoing and evolving discussion.”
Earlier in the day, Lamberth said in an emailed statement to The Star that his constituents in Gallatin asked him to file the bill “due to the intimidation and harassment of public records custodians.” This is something he called “an unfortunate problem that I have come to understand is more prevalent across Tennessee.”
“This bill is purposed to begin a conversation. The question is this: ‘Is it acceptable for a citizen to abuse a records custodian through the public record request system for the purposes of intimidation and harassment as determined by a court of law?’
HB 626, Lamberth said, sets high standards and requires a judge interpret such conduct to equate to serious abuse, intimidation, or harassment based on prior evidence.
“This bill is about protecting our records custodians from unnecessary dangers that exceed the scope of normal employment. I support simplified approaches to open records requests that will help eliminate these situations and improve safety for our records custodians,” Lamberth said.
As reported Friday, under the bill a government official could seek an injunction to keep people from making records requests that constitute harassment.
If an injunction goes through, then the person requesting government records could make no further requests for one year. That person, though, could ask a court to reverse the decision – but only if he or she shows “the public records request does not constitute harassment.”
“Harassment” means three or more public records requests within a period of one year that are made in a manner that would cause a reasonable person, including a records custodian or any staff of the public entity in control of the public records, to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened, or harassed,” according to the bill, as currently written.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher said this is “a really big step” and she’s concerned it could cause a chilling effect.
It is unclear if the amendment to House Bill 626 Lamberth says he is working on will be sufficient to satisfy critics of the bill.
– – –