Could New Laws Create Easier Access To Public Records?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and various public records laws throughout the States have done much to expand the type of information the public has access to. Having access to public records allows citizens an opportunity to review and investigate what their elected officials are doing with their time in office. However, one roadblock encountered by many is that some government agencies may be less than forthcoming when presented with records requests. Or, there may be so many hoops to jump through before one can gain access to a record, that obtaining that record may not seem worth the effort. Also, once the hoops have been jumped through, there is also possibility that the record request will be denied.

All these hurdles have been at the center of a variety of recent lawsuits and proposed new legislation. Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee recently signed a law that requires that within seven days of receiving a public record request, the local government must make the public record available, provide an estimated time of record availability, or provide a written reason for lawfully denying record access. This new law also establishes an Office of Open Records Counsel, whose main goal is to ensure that the public and the officials understand their rights and responsibilities related to public records.

North Carolina is also working on creating a law which will make it more difficult for governments to simply deny public records requests. North Carolina, however, is taking an approach in the form of financial punishment. A new bill, which was introduced by Senator David Hoyle, would require government agencies to pay the legal bills for people who sue to obtain access to public records. Legal bills will only be paid if a court finds that the request was illegally denied. The thought behind the bill is that agencies will not be so quick to ignore or refuse public records requests if they know they could end up paying costly legal bills.

These new laws could create a new atmosphere in the public records environment, and there are a variety of similar laws in the works throughout different states. After all, public records, should really be public records. In the meantime, if you are looking for easy access to public records, sometimes the best option is to look for online resources so you can avoid the step of submitting requests through the government agency. For a list of online public records resources in North Carolina, Tennessee, and all other states, visit the Free Public Records Directory.ï ¿ ½

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