Opponents of public record inspection fee dominate hearing

Nearly every one of the roughly 30 people who delivered comments at a Knoxville public hearing Tuesday told state officials they were against government agencies charging citizens to inspect public records, reports the News Sentinel.

Those speakers included private citizens, journalists, leaders of nonprofits and elected officials who came from as far away as Chattanooga, Crossville, Bristol and Johnson City.

Kevin Baigert and his wife, Laura, drove three hours from Sumner County because they worried no one would show up to the meeting.

“We were very concerned there was not going to be any one here, so it’s kind of inspiring to see this many people here,” Baigert said of the attendance that was estimated to be at least 80 people. “This is important.”

Tuesday’s public hearing was the first of three the Office of Open Records Counsel is hosting around the state to collect comments on proposed legislation that would allow government offices to charge fees for the right to review public records. Currently, state and local governments can charge only for copying records, though that fee can include per-labor costs of gathering and preparing documents.

The panel will make a recommendation on the proposal to the Legislature when it convenes in January.

Ann Butterworth said the Office of Open Records Counsel has already received about 170 submitted comments and 547 responses to an online survey on the issue. Her office will hold a hearing Wednesday in Nashville and another Thursday in Jackson.

Those who spoke against the inspection fee Tuesday complained that taxpayers are already paying for the records and shouldn’t have to pay again to inspect them. They also argued the levy would keep citizens, especially those who are financially disadvantaged, from accessing public information and would also allow governments to keep documents hidden under the guise of large fees.

In 2011, the state estimated the cost of inspecting records would come to about $1.7 million, News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy said at the hearing. McElroy, who is also president of the Tennessee Press Association, said that burden would likely be carried primarily by newspapers “whose role and responsibility is to monitor the workings of government.”