KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Pics or it didn’t happen? Good luck with that on the public records trail.
From Mountain City to Memphis and Clarksville to Chattanooga, local government agencies follow conflicting, contradictory - and completely arbitrary - rules on whether residents can take cellphone pictures of the records they helped pay to create.
Just 5 percent of cities and counties - and no school systems - out of 259 agencies across the state examined by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government have policies that specifically allow requesters to take photos of records rather than pay for copies.
Nearly half of the agencies - 48 percent - ban use of personal equipment outright. Another 41 percent don’t even acknowledge the possibility, at least not on paper. Even the policies that allow cellphone photos aren’t necessarily consistent.
“It’s unreasonable,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which champions access to public records around the state. “If someone has a cellphone and just wants to take a picture of a document, it’s essentially the same thing as taking a pencil and paper and writing the information down, just easier and faster.”
The Legislature two years ago ordered all cities, counties and school districts to adopt public records policies. Some of the confusion and discrepancies over cellphone photos apparently resulted from the wording of a model policy offered by the state Office of Open Records Counsel as a template for local governments.
“Our policy came from the state,” said Amber Scott, Lenoir City administrator, who handles the city’s public records requests. “It’s the model policy.”...That policy states: “A requester will (not) be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment.”State officials say they meant to offer agencies options. But instead of tailoring the legalese to fit, the bulk of city councils and county commissions apparently slapped the policy on the books as a one-size-fits-all, sometimes with and sometimes without the brackets or parentheses.Most of the records policies that ban photos parrot the model nearly word-for-word.“The model policy gives public officials the discretion to choose to allow people to take pictures,” said John Dunn, spokesman for the state Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the open records office. “It was never meant to be copy-and-paste. We mean for the cities and counties to compare the policy with their own circumstances and adopt what fits their needs.”TCOG, the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters called repeatedly for the state to revise or clarify its model, warning the language could lead to blanket bans on photos. The same policy still appears on the state’s website.Even among local governments that allow pictures of records, the rules vary. Some county policies hold out the possibility of charging requesters who want to snap cellphone pics. Nice try, says the state.“You couldn’t,” said Dunn, the comptroller’s spokesman. “Not unless they physically took the records.”___Sunshine and centsSome officials argue