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VOL. 123 | NO. 86 | Thursday, May 01, 2008

Open Records Bill Advances In State House

By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE (AP) - All public records requests would have to be responded to in seven business days under changes made to an open records bill advancing in the House.

The House State and Local Government Committee agreed Tuesday on voice votes to revise the legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican.

Instead of five days, officials would have two more days to produce the records or say how long it will take.

Other amendments to the bill include requiring the office of ombudsman to develop a policy for notifying elected or appointed officials when information is requested about them, as well as develop a fee scale for requests.

Open-government advocates said they're concerned the amendments might weaken the bill, but they're still glad to see it advancing.

"I'm glad we have something," said Frank Gibson, who heads the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member.

The House changes are a departure from the companion version that could be voted on in the Senate as early as today.

Gibson said the Senate bill could boost the state's national ranking by the Better Government Association from near the bottom to No. 10.

Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis and chairman of the panel, suggested most of the changes to the House version. He had asked Memphis officials to come speak about the cost of records requests.

An attorney for the city said Tuesday that Memphis officials base their policy of closing access to private e-mails sent through the public computer system on a Chattanooga court's decision that a judge's personal fantasy tape was not public record.

A Hamilton County chancellor ruled in January that a former judge's embarrassing audio tape of graphic personal fantasies was his private property and not subject to open records laws.

Assistant City Attorney Sondra Keys told the committee that personal e-mails sent by Memphis City Council members should fall under the same exemption.

Keys said the extra time needed to redact personal e-mails from records requests drives up the time and cost of processing information requests.

"It appears that anything personal or private that is exchanged via e-mail does not fall under the rubric of public records," she said. "So of course somebody has to go through and parse all that out and ferret that all out."

Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said he was surprised by the city's stance on the e-mails.

"Even though those are city-owned computers, there should be some e-mail on those not open to the public," he said. "If they're e-mailing on those computers, then that should all be open to the public."

Jones was dismissive of news accounts about the direction the bill was headed in. He suggested that the media doesn't represent all segments of the public equally.

"I can tell you newspapers don't speak for all people, they don't," Jones said. "As far as getting information out, one thing I've learned ... is when we try to get information out - and when I say we, I mean African-Americans - it's hard to get it out."


Read HB3637 on the General Assembly's Web site at http://www.legislature.state.tn.us


Associated Press Writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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