Citizens say fee to inspect public records hampers government transparency

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Trying to find out about a development project moving into your neighborhood or how city, county and state government spends your tax dollars could cost you money just to get a look at documents to answer your questions.

WREG found out who's behind a proposed law to charge citizens for the mere inspection of public records.

It already costs citizens to get copies of public records. The government can charge a fee for the use of its printer, ink and paper, but now some of those offices want to charge just for viewing documents.

"My experience in Memphis, Tennessee, is that public officials fear public knowledge," one concerned Memphis citizen told a packed crowd at a recent hearing in Jackson.

Memphians were forced to travel to Jackson just to hear about the plan they said is a way to keep citizens in the dark about what the government is doing.

"What they want to do is shut the door on anything and say, 'well I'd like to see this record' and say, 'well it will take me a half hour, an hour, to find that record,' and therefore you'll have to pay this on the front end for access which is ridiculous," Memphis citizen Joe Saino said.

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury held meetings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson to get opinions but avoided the state's biggest city, Memphis. The comptroller's office plans to report what citizens said to legislators, who could vote on the proposal early next year.

"They asked the Office of Open Records Counsel to study this issue to gather more public input," Tennessee Comptroller spokesman John Dunn said.

WREG uncovered the proposal is backed by the Tennessee School Boards Association, a Nashville-based group of which Shelby County Schools and Germantown, Lakeland, Collierville and Arlington school districts all pay to be members.

"We're not trying to block anyone from public documents and not be transparent. However, some requests are taking 10, 20, up to 80 hours," TSBA representative Lee Harrell said.

Harrell said members agreed overwhelmingly to support charging a fee to inspect school-district documents. He said some districts complain public information requests are putting a big burden on staff.

"Should one taxpayer's request shut down an office and, thereby, shut down the work that office is going to do for every other taxpayer?" Harrell said.

WREG uses the Tennessee Open Records Act to find out how government spends your tax dollars and to hold people accountable. We obtained public documents to expose how children in state custody were dying, reveal dozens of employees in city and county government taking home six-figure salaries and uncover how some Memphians used food stamps to buy beer and cigarettes.

"There can be lots of things said about what government is doing, but to actually get the document, you actually get to the truth sometime," said Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition For Open Government. "And that capacity to do that is important, and we should maintain it."

Groups like the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center also regularly request public documents. It said keeping fees to a minimum and having access to inspect public documents is how it advocates for justice.

"It was the only way we were able to find out when the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board had been disbanded. We wouldn't have known that unless we had been able to pull the minutes from the meetings," said Paul Garner of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

The state comptroller told WREG there was no meeting in Memphis because the agency doesn't have an office here, and there was no money budgeted to pay for space. All of the speakers in Jackson were against charging this fee.

WREG polled local government to see where it stands on charging this extra fee. Mayor Mark Luttrell said he doesn't think the fee is necessary. The public information officer for the City of Memphis said it hasn't taken a stance on the issue, but during a mayoral debate Mayor Wharton said he was against it. Shelby County Schools said it hasn't taken a position on whether charging to inspect records is a good idea.

The comptroller's Office of Open Records Counsel is still taking comments online about the proposal until September 30. If you'd like to weigh in, fill out the Comptroller of the Treasury's survey.