NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Not all government public records policies are helping to make records more accessible to residents — especially for those who can’t easily prove state residency — a new audit from the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has found.
The audit of municipalities, counties and school districts found that 84 percent of the 259 policies obtained and analyzed by the nonprofit advocacy group between October and March required the person making a request to provide identification proving Tennessee residency.
“It’s an example of a requirement that seems to have very little purpose,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG. “Even if the person wasn’t a citizen of Tennessee, why would you withhold the minutes of a public meeting?”
Though state law allows government entities to require a government-issued photo ID to request public records, the state does not require such a provision.
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The biggest problem with requiring identification as a condition for access to public records, Fisher said, is that it can be used as a bureaucratic hurdle to delay requests, particularly for routine public records and when there is no reasonable doubt of a person’s residency.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, established in 2003, works to preserve and improve access to public information through an alliance of journalists, civic groups and citizens. Its two dozen board members include leaders of news, civic and legal organizations around the state.
The coalition set out to examine 306 policies around Tennessee in all 95 counties to determine whether the legislature’s new requirement of written public record policies was in fact promoting transparency and making it easier for residents to obtain copies of public records.
The policies of 15 percent of the counties, cities and school districts contacted by the coalition could not be reviewed, mostly because the government entities did not respond, declined to mail or email a copy of their policy, or said they didn’t have one.
“The condition of requiring ID for inspecting or getting copies of public records is perhaps the most significant development in the records request process in the past few years in Tennessee and matches a rise in anecdotal complaints TCOG has received from requestors,” says the TCOG report, which can be found on TCOG’s website, http://tcog.info/public-records-policy-audit/. “It’s an example of a ‘locked-down’ culture in some government entities where if you don’t prove who you are, you can’t see a public record that the public is supposed to be able to see.”
Some requestors have questioned why identification is even needed, especially for routine public records like meeting minutes and reports. Fisher gave as an example a county commissioner from Blount County who requested minutes from a state board’s public meeting only to be told they would not be provided unless she sent government identification.
Only a handful of counties say they don’t require ID
While the overwhelming majority of local government policies require ID to file a request — some specify a Tennessee driver’s license — 2 percent of the entities audited chose not to require identification as a condition to access public records.
Among those is Cheatham County, whose policy explicitly states that “proof of Tennessee citizenship is not required as a condition to inspect or receive copies of public records.”
“In most cases when we declined to provide records based on not being a Tennessee citizen, we later received the same request from a Tennessee citizen so we were only creating an additional burden for the requesting party and the county,” Cheatham County attorney Michael Bligh said.
On top of that, requiring proof of identification from the requesting party would mean the county would periodically have to receive emails containing confidential information, which the county didn’t want to have to take responsibility for safeguarding, Blight said.
In addition to Cheatham County, only Chester, Crockett, Haywood and Henderson counties specify in their policies that no proof of residency is required, according to the TCOG audit.
Another 6 percent of the policies audited used language from the state public records law that says identification “may” be required, indicating a records custodian will use discretion on when to require proof of residency.
A separate 6 percent of the policies didn’t mention whether an ID is required to file a records request.
One public records policy required photo identification, plus a “valid unexpired Tennessee voter registration card with a street address.”
In cities requiring ID, some still exercise discretion
Though Murfreesboro’s policy specifies that a valid Tennessee driver’s license or alternative form of ID is required to prove residency for a records request, in practice, an ID isn’t always required.
Mike Browning, public information officer for the city, said that when working with both media and members of the public, his office doesn’t always require the requestor to provide proof of citizenship if the request is simple and fairly easy to process.
“My main goal, and our goal, is not to in any way stifle the public and media from getting access to information,” Browning said. “If we can provide it, we do.”
Though Browning said he may provide a copy of a document or other simple request without asking for proof of identification and Tennessee citizenship, when someone is seeking access to a city employee’s personnel file or to records that will require “significant hours” to process, he does require identification.
In its report, the open government coalition noted an “encouraging” disconnect between the ID requirement and at least some on the front lines, reporting that many government workers did not require auditors to provide identification to get a copy of the public records policy even when their policy required it.
Tennessee’s most populous counties, Shelby, Davidson and Knox, all have policies requiring identification from individuals requesting documents.
TCOG’s audit can be found at http://tcog.info/public-records-policy-audit/