County will comply with state’s open records law

The Tennessee Public Records Act goes into effect on July 1, and Anderson County officials are wasting no time in bringing Anderson County into compliance with the new state law.

In a 15-0 vote, Anderson County Commission unanimously passed a public records policy resolution on Monday, May 15, at the monthly meeting of Anderson County Commission that would bring Anderson County into compliance with the Tennessee Public Records Act.

Absent from Monday night’s Commission meeting was Anderson County Commissioner Chuck Fritts (Dist. 1).

All government entities subject to the TPRA are required to establish a written public records policy by July 1, the date it goes into effect.

Developed by the state Comptroller’s Office of Open Public Records Counsel, the state’s model public records policy stipulates that government entities include in their public records policies the name of the public records request coordinator – a position designated specifically to function as the government entity’s contact person for public records requests.

The duty of the public records request coordinator is to ensure public records requests are routed to the appropriate records custodian, and that requests are fulfilled in accordance with TPRA.

In the policy Commission approved Monday night, the county named Russell Bearden, Human Resource Director for the county, as the public records request coordinator.

Individual elected office holders have the option of choosing either to adopt the countywide policy, or to adopt their own as long as it is in compliance with state law, officials said.

Office holders electing to adopt their own policy are required to present their version of the records policy before the county commission by June of this year for commission’s approval.

Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager, who was present at the meeting Monday, briefed commissioners on the details relating to the final draft he wrote of the county’s policy on behalf of the records committee.

Yeager said he knew of two county office holders who are considering adopting their own policies, but did not state the names of the elected officials.

The TPRA is intended to make it easier for Tennessee residents to access public records. It also serves as a helpful guideline for government entities to follow when it comes to implementing the new requirements.

The major revision to the policy is the addition in the state’s public record statute of a contact person to facilitate public records requests — the public records request coordinator — to ensure requests get to their proper destination.

For months, Anderson County officials have been at work on developing a written policy to comply with state law.

The need to change the TPRA came about because of problems that were occurring in other county and municipal governments in which local officials were lax in handling public records requests with timeliness.

Yeager has previously stated that he is in favor of the state’s new setup for public records requests.

At a records committee meeting in February, Yeager explained to county officials present at the meeting why he sees this as a good thing for the county.

“This policy is about providing a centralized contact for citizens. The public records request coordinator’s job is to identify the records custodian of a particular document — whatever that document may be — and notify the department head or elected official there’s a records request coming in for their department to give them a heads up. The coordinator serves as a centralized point of contact. I’m an advocate of the centralized point of contact. I’ve always liked the idea,” Yeager said.

Most county officials agree, and view the updated policy as a way to make records requests more efficient for citizens and county employees.

Anderson County Property Assessor John Alley said the policy would be another “protection for citizens” because it helps prevent cases where a citizen is not being adequately helped by an official and needs to be directed to the right point of contact.

Anderson County Trustee Rodney Archer said the policy would improve accuracy by increasing the chances of citizens getting the right record they requested the first time.

The policy commission adopted states the following: public records requests shall be made to the public records request coordinator or his or her designee to ensure that public records requests are routed to the appropriate records custodian for the requested document, if known; requests for inspection only cannot be required to be made in writing; the public records request coordinator should request a mailing or email address from the requestor for providing any written communication; requests for inspection may be made orally or in writing using the request form and delivered to the Anderson County office of Human Resources; proof of Tennessee citizenship by presentation of a valid Tennessee driver’s license (or alternative acceptable form of ID under Tennessee law) is required as a condition to inspect or receive copies of public records; a requestor who knows the records custodian for the particular record may deliver the identified form to the specific records custodian instead of the public records request coordinator; a requestor will not be allowed to make copies of the records with personal equipment or have documents transferred to a personal storage device; there shall be no charge for inspection of open public records provided the inspection process takes less than an hour; and fees and charges for copies of public records should not be used to hinder access to public records.

A records custodian, as defined in the policy, is “the office, official, or employee lawfully responsible for the direct custody and care of a public record.”

The resolution further states that a copy of this policy will be posted to the Anderson County website “at all times, and made available for inspection,” and that copies will be available in the Human Resources office.

The TPRA requires that all state, county, and municipal records—at all times—be open for personal inspection by any citizen of the state and stipulates that persons in charge of records cannot “refuse such right of inspection to any citizen.”