Generally, county records must be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee during business hours of the various county offices. County officials in charge of these records may not refuse the right of any citizen to inspect them unless another statute specifically provides otherwise (T.C.A. § 10-7-503) or they are included in the list of specific records that are to be kept confidential under T.C.A. § 10-7-504 or some other legal authority. Information made confidential by Title 10, Chapter 7 must be redacted whenever possible. T.C.A. § 10-7-503(c)(2). In the event it is not practicable for a requested record to be promptly made available for inspection, the records custodian shall within seven business days: (i) make the record available; (ii) deny the request in writing stating the basis for the denial; or (iii) furnish the requestor a response form stating the time reasonably necessary to produce such record. T.C.A. § 10-7- 503(a)(2)(B).
The Office of Open Records Counsel, created in 2008, was charged with developing a schedule of reasonable charges which may be used as a guideline in establishing charges or fees, if any, to charge a citizen requesting copies of public records. On October 1, 2008, the Office of Open Records Counsel issued its Schedule of Reasonable Charges for Copies of Public Records. Records custodians are authorized by T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(7)(C)(i) to charge reasonable costs consistent with the schedule. The schedule, together with instructions for records custodians, can be found on the website of the Office of Open Records Counsel. Charges established under separate legal authority are not governed by the schedule, and are not to be added to or combined with charges authorized under the schedule. Questions regarding the schedule should be directed to the Office of Open Records Counsel.
A citizen denied access to a public record is entitled to file a petition for inspection in the circuit court or the chancery court of the county in which the records are located, or in any other court of that county having equity jurisdiction. The county official denying access to the record has the burden of proof to justify the reason for nondisclosure. If the court directs disclosure, the county official shall not be held criminally or civilly liable for the release of the records, nor shall he or she be responsible for any damages caused by the release of the information. If the refusal to disclose the record is willful, the court may assess all reasonable costs involved in obtaining the record, including reasonable attorneys' fees, against the county official. T.C.A. § 10-7-505.
For county governments, one important class of confidential records involves personal information of state, county, municipal, and other public employees. An employee's, including a former employee's, home telephone and personal cell phone numbers, bank account information, health savings account information, retirement account information, pension account information, Social Security number, residential address, driver's license information (except where driving is a part of the employee's job), and similar information for the employee's family and household members are confidential. Where this confidential information is part of a file or document that would otherwise be public information, such information shall be redacted if possible so that the public may still have access to the nonconfidential portion of the file or document. T.C.A. § 10-7-504(f) & (g).
In addition to creating a schedule of charges for records requests, the Office of Open Records Counsel has been charged with the duty to answer questions from and issue advisory opinions to public officials regarding public records. T.C.A. § 8-4-601. This office should be a valuable resource for questions on open records.