Watchdog group criticizes EPB over open records
A non-profit watchdog group in Washington D.C. is criticizing Chattanooga's EPB over the costs associated with a recent open records request.
Saturday, August 2nd 2014, 11:45 pm EDT
Monday, August 4th 2014, 5:46 am EDT
A non-profit watchdog group in Washington D.C. is criticizing Chattanooga's EPB over the costs associated with a recent open records request. A UTC student, and intern for the group, says he was slapped with a large fee after wanting to know more about how much the publicly-owned provider spends on advertising.
"They're not a private business. They're not Comcast. They're not Charter," says Ethan Greene.
Ethan Greene says he was hit with a large fee when he filed an open records request to look into EPB's advertising agreements and spending, as well as emails from top management, spanning from 2012 to March 2014.
"In order for me to view those records, not to receive copies, but just to view them, that I first had to pay the fee that they assessed of $1,767.07," says Greene.
He filed the request at the end of March. To see if the cost would drop, he filed separate requests in April but the fee stayed the same. In May, he wrote a check.
"I got help from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. I mean, it was in my bank account, it came from my checking account that I paid."
When Channel 3 sat down Greene, he did not disclose that he is an intern for the non-profit Taxpayers Protection Alliance. The organization paid the entire fee. Former Times Free Press editorial writer Drew Johnson is a senior fellow for the group and has voiced criticism over EPB management in the past. But greene insists, out if his own curiosity, he wanted to see where EPB's money is going.
"They're a government entity. They should be required to follow their own law."
"I think it is an abuse of power," says Deborah Fisher, Executive Director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
Fisher thinks EPB presenting the fee up front was an effort to deter Greene and he should not have been charged.
"The Tennessee Public Records Act is very clear. It says the citizens of the state have a right to inspect public records and that there can be no charge assessed if the citizen simply wants to inspect a record," says Fisher.
"We work very diligently to make sure that we comply with the requirements of the public records act. But we also have to balance our customers' privacy. We have a lot of information here that the law not only protects, but requires us to make sure is kept confidential and redacted," says Katie King, Senior Council and Privacy Officer for EPB.
King says on top of the detailed efforts to retract the private information, it took four EPB employees more than 63 hours to pull the records.
"In the case of Mr. Greene's request, it was pretty complex and extensive."
She says the fee is well within the law.
"The law requires that the cost be paid by the person making the request, not by EPB's customers," says King.
King also points out Greene did request copies of the records, all 2,100 pages worth, in late July.
"We always strive to be open and transparent," says King.
"Realize that your tax payer money does go somewhere. You should figure out where it's going, how it's being spent and if nothing else you should demand transparency from the government that's spending it," says Greene.
"We're happy to work with him. We're going to continue to work with him," says King.
EPB made the records available to Greene on June 19th but EPB says he did not review them until the end of last month.
While Greene and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance says it wants the money back, at this time it does not plan to take any legal action due to the legal fees involved.