A proposal to charge Tennesseans to look at public records was widely criticized at a downtown Nashville hearing Wednesday morning.
Critics say the idea would shut down outside scrutiny of state and local government.
The state comptroller's office hosted the hearing, one of three taking place around Tennessee this week. They come after state lawmakers floated the idea of charging for the mere inspection of public records. Under current Tennessee law, agencies cannot charge to look at records but can recoup the cost to produce copies.
Marian Ott, the president of the League of Women Voters, opened the hearing by condemning the suggestion.
"Fees for inspecting public records are akin to a poll tax for accessing government. Some citizens will simply not be able to afford the fees and thus will be blocked from access to public records."
The comment set the tone for the nearly 90-minute hearing. In all, about 20 people — journalists, activists and a few public officials — said they were against the proposal.
They cited examples of corruption that had been uncovered and said government has a duty to turn information over to the public. They also said officials have already tried using exorbitant fees to copy records as a way to keep them sealed.
But two speakers, including Mt. Juliet's city recorder and finance director Sheila Luckett, said total transparency has a cost. Luckett said officials at least should be allowed to charge to look at personnel records, arguing that it takes considerable time to go through them and redact private information.
"It's part of their duties, and they gladly do it. It's just, I don't think it's unreasonable to charge a minor fee if it takes over a certain amount of hours, or certain number of copies or something like that."
Teresa Corlew from Nashville Electric Service made a similar argument. She said the public utility often has to fulfill complex requests that are often ignored, even by the person who first asked for the information.
The comptroller's office will be taking comments until the end of the month on whether to charge for viewing public records. It plans to deliver a recommendation to the legislature by the end of the year.
DISCLOSURE: WPLN reporter Blake Farmer is a member of the Advisory Council on Open Government, which organized the hearings.