Judge delivers mixed ruling on Loudon County public records
By HUGH G. WILLETT, knoxnews.com
June 13, 2007

KINGSTON - Loudon County residents don't have to pay to inspect public records but will have to pay for copies of those documents, a Chancery Court judge ruled Tuesday.

The county has "no right to charge for inspection but only for actual time and expense for copying documents," according to the ruling by Chancellor Frank V. Williams III.

The ruling supported the position of the defendant, Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp, who instituted the fees when he entered office in September 2007.

"I'm just glad that it's over," Arp said.

After testimony from the plaintiff, local activist Pat Hunter, and county employees, Williams ruled that the fee policy was within the mayor's power.

"If the people of the county don't like the policy, they can vote Mayor Arp out of office," said Williams, whose jurisdiction covers more than one county and who heard the case in Roane County for scheduling purposes.

"I can't find that the fee schedule is unreasonable or inhibiting to the citizens in any way," he added.

Ann Barker, attorney for Hunter, argued that the fees are a burden on both the public and the county staff. She said that, while charging for copies of records was reasonable, it was unreasonable to charge for the clerk's time to make the copies.

Williams said it was reasonable to consider both.

Arp's new policy imposes a fee of 7 cents per page and an additional charge of $23.47 per hour for the clerk's time, billable in six-minute increments.

"I'm pleased with the ruling, but this is a bittersweet victory for the citizens of Loudon County," said Arp's attorney, Robert Bowman. "They have been forced to incur the legal costs for this action."

Barker said the ruling was a partial victory for Hunter, since the judge ruled that records must be made available for inspection for free, with fees kicking in only if copies are made.

Barker also pointed to Williams' previous ruling that residents did not have to fill out a written request to view records. The rulings mean the mayor's new records policy will be considerably "less onerous," she said.

Hunter continued to insist that charging for the clerk's time is paying twice for the same service. "We already pay for the clerk's time with our taxes," she said, and the cost could put the ability to access public records out of the reach of lower-income residents.

Jim Cardwell, a Loudon County resident who traveled to Kingston for the three-hour trial, agreed with Hunter.

"Usually these things are decided on middle-class values, but not all citizens are middle class," Cardwell said. "For some people, even paying a few dollars for records is too much."

The case will be continued in August when the judge will be asked to decide whether or not Hunter was denied access to view public records related to the county payroll. Arp has contended that such records could not be provided because they contained county employees' personal and confidential information.