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VOL. 126 | NO. 51 | Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Officials, Citizens Turn to Open Records Office

KRISTIN M. HALL | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel responded to more than 1,200 inquiries in the last year as more government officials and citizens turn to the office for help navigating the state's open meetings and open records law.

Since March 2010, the office fielded questions ranging from how much can be charged for providing copies of records, to what constitutes adequate public notice for a meeting and what records are exempt from public inspection.

Elisha D. Hodge, who serves as the counsel, said more officials and citizens are aware of her office and the assistance she can provide.

More than 600 questions came from government officials and nearly 500 were from citizens, according to an annual report prepared for the General Assembly. About 90 questions came from media organizations.

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The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel responded to more than 1,200 inquiries in the last year as more government officials and citizens turn to the office for help navigating the state's open meeting and open records law.

Since March 2010, the office fielded questions ranging from how much can be charged for providing copies of records, to what constitutes adequate public notice for a meeting and what records are exempt from public inspection.

Elisha D. Hodge, who serves as the counsel, said more officials and citizens are aware of her office and the assistance she can provide. The state office has seen an increase in calls every year since it was established in 2008 as a part of a legislative update to the open records laws in Tennessee.

"They are aware that they have a resource and they are also getting requests and inquiries they have not had to deal with before," she said.

More than 600 questions came from government officials and nearly 500 were from citizens, according to an annual report prepared for the General Assembly. About 90 questions came from media organizations.

"I work very hard to respond to requests within a 24-hour period," she said, but acknowledged that complicated questions require additional time for research and analysis.

An overwhelming majority of the questions dealt with public records, such as fees, what records are exempt and where requests should be made, Hodge said. Part of her role is educating public officials and records custodians on the Tennessee Public Records Act, so she has provided presentations to groups like the Tennessee County Attorney's Association and the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association.

"People realize there are things that they can improve on, so I think the trainings are very successful," she said.

Questions about public meetings often center on what constitutes adequate public notice prior to the meeting, Hodge said. The problem is that there is no specific definition of adequate public notice in the law and some government entities have rules specific to their charters, so Hodge has to look beyond just the state law to provide guidance.

When the office gets a complaint about a violation of the state open records law, she will contact the record custodian or government office and try to work with them on resolving the issue.

The office also issues opinions on questions that regularly arise or when an official or citizen requests clarification. In the past year, her office has published opinions on the release of juvenile witness statements, whether charter commission meetings are open to the public and what kinds of meetings are required to record minutes.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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