A bill making its way through the Tennessee legislature would revamp the state’s public records law by, among other things, establishing a deadline for agencies to respond to information requests.
SB 3280 and its companion bill, HB 3637, would also require custodians of public information to do one of three things within the new time frame: provide the records, cite the legal exemption for denial in writing or say how much time the agency needs to produce the information or provide the records.
“It will hopefully make the government more responsive,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “By getting in a time element, a deadline and a provision that states the exemption for the denial be specified, it will hopefully make it easier for citizens and the press to get records.”
Fewer than a dozen states have response deadlines of four days or less, while almost 20 currently have no set deadline. The rest have deadlines of four or more days, with varying lengths depending on the type of record requested.
The bill also gives statutory authority to an informal ombudsman office of public records that exists now within the state auditor’s office. The office, which has been open for about two months, has already received 35 complaints or inquiries about public records.
“This is a place where the public and others can call and get guidance on whether something is actually closed or not if they’ve been told it’s closed,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the office can “informally mediate requests,” but noted that the first formal step after someone is denied a request is to file suit against the agency.
The bill would also create an advisory committee within the office to continue studying related issues, such as electronic records and fees, Gibson added.
The Senate bill will be heard by a committee today, but not voted on for another week or so because of ongoing discussions about the time element, Gibson said. The House bill hasn’t been discussed yet, pending the status of the Senate bill.