Several changes to the open records bill that were approved this week in the House State Government Subcommittee would curb citizens’ access to public records, according to Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
One revision to HB 3637 would give government agencies unlimited potential to impose fees onto requesters if the search takes longer than an hour, he said. The specific language the amendment uses is, "charges may include, but are not limited to," which opens the door for numerous fees, Gibson said.
“If this amendment passes, then access to records is going to be restricted without any consideration of other points of view,” Gibson said.
Another revision proposes that appointed and elected officials be notified if they’re mentioned in any document before the request is fulfilled. If some type of aggregate record, such as a database, is sought, Gibson said this could seriously hinder access to records.
“If that’s adopted,” he said, “that would be something that would hold up the release of public information indefinitely in some cases.”
The proposal also suggests allowing only Tennessee residents to make requests, citing cities’ complaints that requests from out-of-state residents would unduly burden agencies. Gibson said his organization argued to take this change out of the bill, saying it was ruled unconstitutional in a U.S. Court of Appeals case in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) regarding a Delaware law and figures it’s only a matter of time before it becomes an issue in Tennessee.
One last major revision the subcommittee put forth was increasing the deadline for agencies in larger cities to respond to requests from five days to seven.
The amendments proposed to the House bill restrict the public’s access much more than the Senate version, SB 3280, which has basically remained unchanged throughout the legislative process, including maintaining the new five-day deadline, Gibson said.
Both bills will be discussed again Tuesday. The House State and Local Government Committee will examine the amended House bill while the Senate bill is on the agenda of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.