EDITORIAL: Outrageous fee for public records should be waived
Feb 10, 2013 (The Knoxville News-Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Editor's note: Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy's first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this editorial.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services wants to charge a media coalition $55,584 to provide records of children who have died or nearly died after contact with the agency since 2009.
The beleaguered agency's bloated request should outrage Tennessee citizens, who are allowed by law -- and supported in this case by a judge's ruling -- to inspect most public documents. At best, the explanation given by the state's legal team outlines an inefficient, Byzantine system for responding to a public records request. The state should waive most, if not all, of the cost.
Led by the Tennessean and including The Associated Press and the News Sentinel, the media coalition requested the records in a lawsuit.
On Jan. 23, Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy ordered the state to provide copies of investigative reports -- with confidential information redacted -- in the cases of four children who died after some sort of contact with DCS. She also ordered the state to provide a cost estimate for releasing the reports on the deaths of more than 200 children sought by the media companies.
The state responded last week with a nine-page description of the process, which, according to a Tennessean report, included multiple photocopies, long-distance hand delivery and the labor costs involved. The expense estimates included $18,516 to redact records (including 600 rolls of white-out tape), $9,000 for paralegals hired to double-check each file and $3,502.13 to cover the hours spent by DCS management to supervise the work.
According to DCS, staff would have to fan out across the state to locate the files in local offices, deliver them to regional offices and then take them to Nashville. Once copied twice, the cumbersome process would be reversed to return the documents to the local offices. Mileage would be charged for more than 14,000 miles of driving. State lawyers claim the files must be hand-delivered and not sent by U.S. Mail or a delivery service to protect the integrity of the records.
Surely local DCS offices have machines called computers that are connected to the agency's central office in Nashville through a computer network commonly referred to as the Internet.
And surely local office employees can scan the records and securely send them electronically to the central office.
And surely the state can then distribute them to members of the media coalition in the same manner.
And surely the whole process could cost a lot less than $55,584.
As a state agency, DCS should have had a process in place to respond to public records requests. It is part of the job -- the duty -- of state employees to provide records to the public, whether the requests come from a newspaper or a private citizen.
Robb Harvey, the attorney representing the media coalition, has asked the state to waive the fee, but so far the state has refused. Harvey points out that "imposing high costs on public records requesters is the same as denying access to the records."
The embattled Kate O'Day resigned last week as DCS commissioner. Jim Henry, who runs the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, is her interim replacement.
When Gov. Bill Haslam names a permanent replacement, he should insist on greater transparency from an agency responsible for roughly 8,000 Tennessee children. One would think that administration and DCS officials would want to release as much information as possible on these deaths to assure the public that the agency is doing its job -- or demonstrate that more resources are needed to prevent such tragedies.
DCS should not have to be forced to release information about the deaths of these children.
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