Open records law set for changes

Open records law set for changes

By John Rodgers,

Sen. Randy McNally is sponsoring a bill — making progress in the Legislature — that would require responses to open records requests be made within five days. Josh Anderson/File

The state’s open records law appears poised for its first major change in 25 years as a consensus looks to have been forged among state lawmakers.

Interested parties — from legislators, open government advocates and local governments — have signed off on a bill to change the state’s open records, said Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), the bill’s sponsor.

Originally, the Legislature and a blue-ribbon panel were considering reforming the open records and open meetings statutes.

But now, efforts to amend the open meetings law, which is more politically problematic, have been abandoned.

“They tended to be the more contentious things that there was not agreement on,” McNally said of proposed open meeting changes, including the most controversial one that would allow more public officials to meet in private.

Progress was made Tuesday though on open records as the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved McNally’s bill unanimously.

If it ultimately becomes law, the bill would mark the first time in a quarter century that the open records law has been changed, other than when exemptions have been added to close records to the public, said Frank Gibson, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

The effort also comes through as more attempts are being made to close public records, including making state employees’ home address and phone numbers confidential as well as making handgun carry permit holders information confidential.

The open records bill requires all records open to the public to be made available within five days.

f the requested record were closed, the governmental agency would have to give the citizen an explanation on why the record is not public. Or, if it’s going to take longer than five days to fulfill the request, the governmental agency must tell the citizen how long it’s expected to take.

“It gives them a reasonable amount of time to respond,” Gibson said. “There is no deadline now, no time limit.”

Failure to respond would create a cause of action for the requesting citizen to go to court.

Sen. Thelma Harper (D-Nashville), who ultimately voted for the bill, raised questions about the five-day time limit provision.

Harper said governmental agencies or employees “shouldn’t be required to go to court” when they’re doing “the very best they can to respond” to the records request.

Harper said an unidentified man from Knox County had been seeking records from her office and she didn’t think it was “fair” for her staffers and herself to “instruct someone who lives in Knox County.”

“He was so persistent that, I didn’t want to go to court on him,” Harper said. “I really wanted to go upside his head.”

Sen. Joe Haynes (D-Goodlettsville) said nothing in the bill related to harassment from citizens.

Rather, Haynes said local governments have been the ones usually harassing through a “glorified run around” of the open records law.

Besides the five-day time limit, the open records bill would create the Office of Open Records Council. That office would house the state’s ombudsperson.

The bill prescribes the duties of the Office of Open Records Council. Those duties include the ombudsperson issuing advisory opinions and giving citizens advice on what local government records are open and which are not.

“It creates a place for the public to go if they have some questions about whether they are entitled to a record or not,” Gibson said.

The newly created office would not give advice, however, on accessing state government records. Citizens are theoretically supposed to go through the state attorney general’s office for that, but critics say there is not a direct mechanism since citizens cannot request attorney general opinions.

In addition, a nine-member advisory committee would be created to advise the state on open records and meeting laws.

The bill is now headed to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. It is scheduled for a House subcommittee hearing today.

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