A Solution For Germantown’s And Any Government Open Records Problem
June 20, 2016
There was an article in the Commercial Appeal yesterday concerning a large request for emails in Germantown.
This is part of the article. Germantown, which has paid more than $62,000 in the first half of the year in attorney fees generated by citizen open records requests, is looking to Nashville for relief.
In meetings with Shelby County lawmakers and the state Attorney General, city leaders are researching ways to limit the city’s exposure from the cost of producing large data requests, including potentially charging the costs back to the citizens making the requests.
“Asking for four years of someone’s email — all of them — is not normal,” Mayor Mike Palazzolo said. “Asking for a police report dated Jan. 17, 2009, to clear up an insurance manner is routine. But a wide-cast net that takes up our professionals’ time and legal staff to review is something residents need to know is very costly.”
The City of Germantown’s proposed budget for next year includes a 64 percent increase (from $350,000 to $575,000) in legal fees. City staff suggested an $80,000 increase, but aldermen upped it to $225,000 — for the $575,000 total — based on the size of the legal bills the city is receiving to blackout sensitive data in City Administrator Patrick Lawton’s emails.
In December, resident Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman requested two years of his email, including all attachments.
Under law, governments in Tennessee may charge 15 cents a copy plus labor costs for requests that take more than an hour for staff to gather.
Wilkerson-Freeman has asked to inspect the data, which is free, and then requests copies made of pages she wants.
The problem with this type of open ended request is “REDACTION OF INFORMATION WHICH IS NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.” This non public information could be such things as social security numbers, home addresses, private medical information and other non public information according to the Tennessee Open Records law.
My ANSWER to this redaction problem is a new email protocol that should be adopted by all bodies subject to the Tennessee Open Records Law. This new protocol would apply to all new emails and text messages. Under this protocol the body of the email or text message would be public information. If needed there would be two types of attachments to the basic email text. #1 attachment would be any data that is open to the public. #2 attachment would be any information that is specifically mentioned in the Tennessee open records law as not public information such as addresses, social security information, restricted medical information and exempted legal communications. Then when a request for emails comes in from the public, the requested emails could be easily sent without any #2 attachments containing redactable information. This would do away with the high prices lawyers reading through a bunch of emails. The creators of the emails would have to be trained in the new electronic communications protocol. No personal messages would be allowed on public paid for email services. A public transparency board should be created in each Tennessee County to periodically review emails and text messages to insure compliance with the new protocol.
Any email sent from a government entity, or agent thereof, from a private email account that would otherwise be considered a public record should be carbon copied or forwarded to an official email account created for the purpose of the government entity, or agent thereof, to maintain transparency of and provide a record of that public information.
Let’s face it. Generally politicians hate open records and transparency and they will use the expense gambit to restrict public access to their records. I would appreciate your thoughts on my proposal for a new public records creation protocol. It seems to me a low cost answer to the “I have to hire a lawyer to redact those email requests” from local politicians. Transparency and open records comes from the top. Lack of transparency comes from the same place.