SEVIERVILLE —Sevier County Attorney Jerry McCarter acknowledged the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel was opposed to a proposed new records fee but said he believed it met state law before county commission approved it Monday.
The county commission approved the new, $50 documents fee Monday after County Mayor Larry Waters indicated they’d been assured by both McCarter and the state Office of Open Records that the fee complied with state law.
The Mountain Press had sent the state an inquiry last week about the new fee after seeing the proposal on the agenda for this month’s regular meeting.
In an email sent to county officials ahead of the meeting Monday, McCarter said he believed the county’s reasoning for implementing the fee would withstand review.
The email was included in records provided to The Mountain Press under an open records request.
“The Office of Open Records Counsel seems to be opposed,” McCarter said, acknowledging the state had indicated the county needed statutory authority to exceed a Schedule of Reasonable Charges, which generally sets fees for copies at $.50 to $1 per page.
County officials have indicated they started considering new fees at the medical examiner’s office to help pay new costs at that office.
They have shifted that office from part-time to full-time personnel in the past few years, and are looking to add another position.
The office has received additional requests for death investigations and for copies of records, according to county officials. That includes requests from attorneys and insurance companies as well as families, the media and others.
McCarter’s email also acknowledges the county’s expense in having autopsies performed at the Knox County Regional Medical Examiner’s Office.
He indicated that, for all those reasons, he believed the county’s new records fee is in compliance with the state’s requirements, despite opposition from the Office of Open Records Counsel.
“Taking all into consideration it is my opinion that the proposed resolution is not in violation of state statutes,” he said.
The county had correspondence from the Office of Open Records Counsel in January about the proposal, which also seemed to indicate they couldn’t go beyond the Schedule of Reasonable Charges.
“A local government office can charge fees that exceed the charges and fees set forth in our Schedule of Reasonable Charges if they have statutory authority to impose higher charges or fees,” counsel Lee Pope wrote.
“For example, courts and registers of deeds have specific statutory authority to charge higher per-page fees for copies of certain records or to certify and file various types of records.
“I’m unaware if the medical examiner’s office has such authority.”
The Mountain Press asked for an opinion on the fee and was told Friday that “absent some other statutory authority for the county to impose charges for records held by the medical examiner, the medical examiner should charge its actual costs to produce copies of public records or impose charges for copies in accordance with our Schedule of Reasonable Charges.”
There are no records of the county asking the state for clarification after The Mountain Press inquired with them, and the state has indicated they didn’t get any emails from the county on that topic last week.
However, Assistant Mayor Perrin Anderson said that Joe Ayers, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency, contacted the state by phone late last week.
Waters indicated during Monday’s meeting that they had an email from the state saying they approved the measure; Anderson said that was a misunderstanding and Ayers had a phone conversation to that effect.
Waters indicated Monday that the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office asks for $60 for the same records; Anderson said that figure was based on a $30 fee for an autopsy report and a $30 fee for a toxicology report.
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