By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Comptroller Justin Wilson’s move to automatically waive the first $25 in fees for public records requests is drawing praise from open government advocates.
The proposed rules, which would also give the comptroller the discretion to waive all costs related to public record searches and copies, were unanimously recommended for adoption by the Joint Government Operations Committees on Wednesday.
“The fee waiver provisions are progressive for Tennessee and should be a model for other state and local agencies,” said Frank Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.
TCOG is a nonprofit alliance of citizen, professional and media groups, including The Associated Press. (Note: And the Knoxville News Sentinel.) The group is committed to promoting government transparency.
Wilson said the new rule is motivated in part because it can cost his office more money to process a payment than the actual cost charged for a records request.
“That’s not efficient government,” he said.
Wilson’s decisions to waive total fees will be made on a case-by-case basis — and only if he finds the requests to be within reason.
“I’m absolutely in favor of open records, but I don’t want it to be abused,” Wilson said. “If there are excessive requests, you need to pay for it.”
The Public Records Act says all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen, unless the record is specifically exempt under a myriad of provisions in the code allowing for confidentiality.
Gibson said the law doesn’t require government entities to collect fees for records requests, it simply allows them to adopt reasonable rules on the costs.
“The public feels like it is already paying to collect, store and provide records,” Gibson said. “Fee waivers are a way to recognize that sentiment.”
The state’s Office of Open Records Counsel, which recommends statewide guidelines, is under the comptroller’s jurisdiction. But the proposed rule change would only apply to Wilson’s office and not state and local governments as a whole.
Gibson said one concern about the comptroller’s proposal is that it would require his staff to give a legal basis for redactions “when possible.” He said the law requires an explanation.
“The public should be told the legal basis for denying any part of a record,” he said.
Officials in 2008 created a fee schedule as a guideline for records custodians to use to charge for producing documents. Some records custodians have interpreted those recommendations as a requirement to collect copy and research fees.