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VOL. 36 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 28, 2012

Comptroller to waive first $25 of records requests

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Comptroller Justin Wilson's move to automatically waive the first $25 in fees for public records requests is drawing praise from open government advocates.

The proposed rules scheduled to be reviewed by state lawmakers Wednesday would also give the comptroller the discretion to waive all costs related to public record searches and copies.

"The fee waiver provisions are progressive for Tennessee and should be a model for other state and local agencies," said Frank Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.

TCOG is a nonprofit alliance of media, citizen and professional groups committed to promoting government transparency. Among its members are The News Sentinel, The Associated Press, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Under the proposed rules, the fees could be waived altogether if he "determines it is in the best interest of the Comptroller's Office."

The Public Records Act says all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen, unless the record is specifically exempt under a myriad of provisions in the code allowing for confidentiality.

Gibson said the law doesn't require government entities to collected fees for records requests, it simply allows them to adopt reasonable rules on the costs.

"The public feels like it is already paying to collect, store and provide records," Gibson said. "Fee waivers are a way to recognize that sentiment."

The state's Office of Open Records Counsel, which recommends statewide guidelines, is under the comptroller's jurisdiction. But the proposed rule change would only apply to Wilson's office and not state and local governments as a whole.

Gibson said one concern about the comptroller's proposal is that it would require his staff to give a legal basis for redactions "when possible." He said the law requires an explanation.

"The public should be told the legal basis for denying any part of a record," he said.

Officials in 2008 created a fee schedule as a guideline for records custodians to use to charge for producing documents. Some records custodians have interpreted those recommendations as a requirement to collect copy and research fees.