Loudon mayor supports charging for public records; TCOG opposes bill

Loudon County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw's decision to support proposed legislation that would charge residents to view public records seems at odds with his campaign promise to increase government transparency.
Bradshaw will testify next month at hearings sponsored by the Office of Open Records related to HB-315/SB-315 sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads.
The legislation is opposed by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "It appears the county wants to change the public records act so it can be used as a club against citizens who ask questions they don't want to answer," said Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG.
"An alternative would be to adhere to the spirit of the law and recognize that citizens have a right to know what their government is doing," she said.
Bradshaw believes he has worked hard to fulfill his campaign pledge to increase transparency in government.
Before taking office in September 2014, he promised to provide as much information as he could on problems at the long-neglected Poplar Springs landfill.
"During my first months in office I provided more information on the landfill than the previous administration provided in years," he said, adding's that over the past year he's approved dozens of public records requests from the media and citizens.
"We've never turned down a single request," he said. Bradshaw said his decision to testify in support of the legislation was prompted by a records request the county received earlier this year. Richard Truitt, a county resident who speaks frequently at county government meetings, was concerned about changes to the public comment period during meetings. He wanted to know who in county government initiated the changes. He asked to inspect all emails between the mayor's office and members of county commission involving county business over a 30-day period.
According to Bradshaw, Truitt's request cost the county more than $6,635 in legal fees plus the time of county workers. "We had to shut down the IT department for a day," Bradshaw said.
Truitt's attorney, Linda Noe, disagrees. "It was Mayor Bradshaw's decision to turn a public document request over to an attorney who charges the county $250 per hour for his time that caused the absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary expense to the county," Noe said.
County attorney Robert Bowman was involved in the legal review of Truitt's request. He said the request was illegal because it was not specific enough.
According to state law on open records, any request for inspection or copying of public records shall be sufficiently detailed to enable the Records Custodian to identify the specific records to be located or copied.
"Obviously Mr. Truitt's request to see "all written correspondence ... related to County business of any kind" does not fulfill this unambiguous provision of state law," Bowman said.
If Truitt had simply clarified his request or provided search terms to the County, it would have saved thousands of dollars in legal fees and county labor costs, he said.
"Although our fees were over $9,000, we billed the County considerably less than that because it was not fair to the citizens of Loudon County to charge them for all of our work related to this unreasonable and unlawful Open Records Act Request," Bowman said.
Bradshaw said he believes in open government but also has a responsibility to the county's residents to see that taxpayer money isn't wasted on fulfilling frivolous open records requests.
TCOG's Fisher bristles at the notion that government officials can refer to citizen records requests as frivolous. "I personally wouldn't want a government official saying this request is frivolous so I won't fulfill it. That's crazy power and essentially chokes off the ability of citizens to have true accountability of their own government," she said.
Charging fees to inspect public records will block people from accessing records and would create a new exemption to the open records act. Those who can't afford the cost will be denied access to the records. "It would be a huge backward step for Tennessee," she said.
If government were interested in lowering the costs of responding to public records requests, they would be looking at their processes, including the option of mediation, she said.
Fisher agrees that Truitt's request was broad.
One way for government to deal with a broad request is to fulfill it in segments, she said, which has several advantages including creating good will with the requester. It allows the government to regulate the amount of time it spends on the record request so one large request doesn't "shut down" an office. It also offers the possibility that the requester will get what he wants in one of the earlier segments and not need the rest, she said.