“Opryland.” “Party.” “Prizes.” “Training.” “Teamweek.” And an eight-letter expletive for orgy.
Those are the words that Drew Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, focused on when asking for e-mails regarding “Team Week,” an August training session for Tennessee Department of Revenue employees. The training week for 380 employees costs about $140,700, according to the department’s full funding request.
Mr. Johnson was curious to find out just what goes on during that week. The expletive has been mentioned as a nickname employees have used to describe the week.
He asked to look at messages sent between Jan. 1 and April 30 from the department’s commissioner and six others.
Revenue officials gave Mr. Johnson a choice. Department employees could go through the e-mails themselves for free, or the state’s Office for Information Resources could do it at a cost of $3,201 for each day of correspondence, they said.
“The issue here, of course is that if someone has an embarrassing term ... on their computer, they’re not going to just turn it over. They would delete the e-mail,” said Mr. Johnson, who heads up the Nashville-based anti-tax group. “The only way to have an external person check e-mails to ensure that every e-mail is actually turned over is through an electronic master tape.”
Sophie Moery, a spokeswoman for the Revenue Department, said the Office for Information Resources sets the price. She said officials made sure to offer Mr. Johnson the option of getting information for free.
“We certainly would not want to leave him with the only option of an expensive search,” she said.
Lola Potter, spokeswoman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which includes the Office of Information Resources, said obtaining the e-mails involves more than just pulling them off tapes.
“What they essentially have to do is build a new server,” she said. “It just takes a lot of time, a lot of people.”
Restoring an e-mail “post office” from backup tapes takes about six and a half hours and costs about $1,005 for employee time and hardware, according to the office’s price structure. There’s also a $62 fee for each additional user.
According to Revenue Department correspondence with Mr. Johnson, the e-mails he asked for would require the restoration of three post offices, with four users on each post office.
Steve Disbrow, president of Chattanooga-based Ego Systems, a systems design and implementation firm, said it’s unlikely data retrieval like that would cost that much.
“The only circumstance I can think of is if it’s a government agency,” he joked.
Still, Mr. Disbrow said it does depend on the type of tapes used.
“Tape’s a very slow mechanism,” he said.
Jesse Poore, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee, said lots of factors, such as where the tapes are located and how they’re connected to the system, could play into the cost.
“There’s just no way of knowing what it would cost without going through every detail of doing it,” he said.
Frank Gibson, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said Mr. Johnson definitely has a right to inspect the e-mails, but the agency also has a right to charge a reasonable amount for copies.
The question, he said, is just what’s reasonable.
“Reasonable has never really been defined,” he said. “This is an area of the law that needs to be clarified.”
The Tennessee General Assembly last week passed a bill which would require agencies to comply with records requests within seven days. Agencies could charge for the costs of gathering public information, but not for the first five hours.
It also requires the new open records office to develop a schedule of fees for information and a policy for charges to groups than make “frequent and multiple” public records requests.