Tennessee Contemplates Records Inspection Fee

     NASHVILLE (CN) – A majority of speakers at a state-sponsored hearing said they are against a proposed fee for inspecting public records in Tennessee.
     The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel is hosting three hearings this week on proposed legislation that would allow custodians to charge for the inspection of public records under the state’s open records law. State law already allows custodians to charge reasonable fees for copies of documents.
     Members of the Tennessee news media, elected officials, organization leaders and citizens attended a hearing in Nashville on Wednesday morning. All but two speakers said they oppose the new fee proposal.
     “A record is exempt if you cannot afford the fee,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said.
     Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said he is “absolutely opposed to making it harder for anyone to find records.” Susan Curlee, a Williamson County, Tenn. school board member, said she is also opposed to an inspection fee.
     However, Sheila Luckett, city recorder for Mt. Juliet, Tenn., said she supports an inspection fee because of time spent by workers locating records and making redactions.
     “We feel like our employee time is valuable,” Luckett said.
     Agreeing with Luckett was Teresa Corlew of the Nashville Electric Service. Corlew said a small number of people abuse inspections and make overbroad requests, which she said costs staff time and resources. Corlew proposed charges for records searches that take more than three hours.
     Local news media members – including Tennessean News Director Maria De Varenne, WSMV anchor Demetria Kalodimos, WSMV reporter Nancy Amons, WTVF reporter Phil Williams, and Nashville Scene news editor Andrea Zelinski, among others – all said they are opposed to an inspection fee.
     “Public records belong to the people,” Kalodimos said.
     Others against the fee include League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Marian Ott and Sierra Club attorney Brian Paddock.
     The bill at issue is HB 315, and state senate counterpart SB 328. It was introduced in the senate by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and in the state house by Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, in February.
     The bill would allow a records custodian to “assess a reasonable charge in producing the record for viewing if the records custodian incurs costs.” It would also allow custodians to require a written request for public records.
     The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel is soliciting feedback on the proposal through the end of September. The first of three hearings was held Tuesday in Knoxville, and the final hearing will take place Thursday in Jackson, Tenn.

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