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Sunshine Week: Let’s work together to improve access to public records

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By Deborah Fisher, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government

A journalist friend of mine in Georgia recently made a public records request for a state agency file.
The file contained a CD with some of the public documents.
Instead of making a copy of the contents of the CD in response to the public records request, the agency put the shiny disc on a Xerox machine and sent a picture of the CD to the journalist instead.
It did not send the files that were actually on the CD.
This real story goes to show how easily open government is thwarted. My journalist friend will need to be persistent in convincing the government officials to follow both the letter and spirit of the law and give her a copy of the CD’s contents, not just a photocopy of the shiny disc.
By far, most government employees whom I have encountered respect and value the public records law. They are citizens, too, of course. And they understand how access to public records helps ensure accountability and information flow. A flashlight on government also can help reduce corruption and cronyism.
But a real problem exists with state public records laws, and It is not just one outlandish example out of Georgia. It is simply too easy to delay, deny, subvert or undermine access to public records here and everywhere.
Many people know that a citizen can file a public records lawsuit against an entity who they think is violating the public records law. Usually, this is at no small cost to the citizen so it is no small decision.
But I suggest that responsibility of enforcement of the public’s right to know also lies on the shoulders of the people in power — the people who are your representatives on a city council or county commission and others in charge within government who can influence how things are done, such as a director of schools, a police chief, a sheriff, a county executive or a state commissioner in charge of large state agency.
Audits are occasionally done by the State Comptroller’s Office on the practices of local government. But who is checking to make sure that government is consistently following the law in providing access to public records? Who within your local government is making sure that citizens are treated fairly? Who reviews if practices are creating barriers for citizens in accessing government information?
One of the biggest barriers in getting copies of public records in Tennessee is the cost. That’s because government entities are allowed by state law to charge labor fees for copies if they spend more than one hour locating, retrieving and redacting records.
Just this week, I reviewed government charges of $50 an hour and $77 an hour. It is not uncommon to see fees exceed $70 an hour and sometimes they can be as high as $150 to $200 an hour if the government entity asks its attorney or a top-paid staff member, like a school superintendent, to review the records before release.
That is just too expensive for most citizens in Tennessee and the people inside government should know this. Sunshine Week was established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to promote open government. Each March, it is a chance to remind each other and our government that open government is good government.
So this week, ask your government representatives to examine the practices around public records and to think about how to reduce obstacles — such as costs — to better fulfill the ideal of a free flow of information. Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing. And we need heroes within government to help make it happen.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Find out more on its website, www.tcog.info.

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