The Tennessee Court of Appeals opined that municipal officials cannot deny a citizen access to records based upon a refusal to make a request in writing. See Wells v. Wharton, 2005 WL 3309651 (Tenn. Ct. App., 2005). Nonetheless, to ensure accuracy of the records provided and to keep a record of what was requested and provided, the records custodian should keep written documentation. If the requesting citizen refuses to complete a written form, the records custodian or attending clerk should complete the form for the requester. A sample Request for Records form is provided at the end of this document.
The 2008 amendments to the act state that municipalities have seven days to respond to records requests. Before that seven-day period tolls, the municipality must provide the requestor with one of the following:
- The records requested;
- A written denial of the requested record with an explanation for denial; or
- In the case of a voluminous request, an estimated date for completion of the request and an estimation of the charges.
Municipalities should make every reasonable effort to produce requested records immediately. Requests for voluminous or archival records will understandably require additional time. Even with voluminous requests, however, public records should be produced without unnecessary delay.
While the requesting citizen should make his or her request for public records to the department likely to house the records in question, most requests likely will be received by the records custodian. When requests made to the records custodian are for information housed in the files of specific departments, the records custodian should take these requests directly to the department head. Each department head should be responsible for producing the requested documents within a reasonable amount of time.
For most requests, same-day production should be feasible, but certain factors can make same-day production impossible. These factors include the kind, amount, and nature of the records requested; uncertainty as to what records are requested; the location of the records requested; the format in which the records are requested; the extent of the department head’s resources to locate the records at the time the request is made; intervening emergencies, problems, and other events that might reasonably delay the delivery of the records for inspection; and the propensity of the request to create undue disruption of other essential department functions. When records cannot be produced on the same day, the records custodian should notify the requesting party and provide the reason for the delay and the anticipated date of production. Regardless of the production time required, a municipality should take every precaution to not unnecessarily delay the delivery of requested records.
For records existing solely in electronic format, requesters have the right to access the information via the municipality’s computer system so long as this does not reveal confidential information. If the electronic records contain confidential information, the only viable option may be to print a paper copy of the records and redact the confidential information. A requesting citizen always has the right to opt for access to the computer records or to request paper records.
It is the paramount duty of the records custodian to oversee the inspection and at all times ensure the protection of municipal records. Under no circumstances should a requesting citizen be left unattended while inspecting records. Likewise, when municipal records are to be copied, they should always be copied by municipal employees using municipal copying equipment. When circumstances prevent the use of municipal copying equipment, commercial copying services may be used. In this situation, the records custodian should receive a quote from the commercial copy service to be used. The quote should then be forwarded to the requester along with an explanation of the need to use the commercial service and a time frame for completion. Finally, the requester should be given an opportunity to proceed with the commercial service or to withdraw the request. However, strict precautions must be taken to ensure the integrity of the records. Ideally, a municipal employee should physically oversee the commercial copy process. If this is not feasible, a detailed inventory should be taken of the original records before they are delivered to the commercial entity, and the inventory should be thoroughly cross referenced with the materials upon return.