By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — University of Chattanooga junior Ethan Greene suspected Chattanooga’s powerful public utility, the Electric Power Board, was using taxpayer money to advertise its ultra-high-speed Internet service.
He filed a public information request earlier this year.
Greene said he never wanted EPB staff to copy advertising records from 2012-14 — he merely wanted access to inspect them.
For this, EPB initially charged him about $1,700 — they later revised their estimate to nearly $4,000.
As Tennessee Watchdog reported, EPB accepted $111 million in federal stimulus money four years ago to pay for only part of the cost for the city’s new smart grid, designed primarily for smart-meter technology.
EPB officials also use it to accommodate their ultra high-speed Internet service, which runs about 200 times faster than average and which they use to compete against private Internet service providers.
“My whole point is I am a citizen of Tennessee and this is my taxpayer money. The law requires that this information should be transparent, and I should have a right to view it without abusive charges,” Greene said, adding that Tennessee Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge agrees with him, per a conversation between the two.
Hodge confirmed the discussion, though, in a follow-up conversation EPB officials told Hodge they have the right to redact certain portions of those records, including private customer information.
EPB officials also have the right to charge Greene for redacting those records, even if all Greene wants to do is inspect them, Hodge said.
“I can’t really say if EPB is doing anything inappropriate because I have yet to see the unredacted versions of the records and if there really is confidential information in them,” Hodge said.
Regardless, according to Greene, EPB is bullying a college student. Greene has done work for the Virginia-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a nonprofit with a stated mission of educating the public about government’s effects on the economy.
But whether he’s doing this for himself or for the TPA is irrelevant, Greene said.
“EPB is saying I’m not doing this for some sort of philanthropic or charitable cause,” Greene said.
“They said it was not made with good intentions, so they have a justifiable reason to give me this charge.”
EPB spokesman John Pless denies the utility is using taxpayer money to market its Internet services, saying instead the sale of fiber optic Internet, video and phone services fund its advertising.
Pless also denies that EPB officials are imposing this charge upon him due to his affiliations, adding they would charge the same for any Tennessee resident.
“Mr. Greene’s request took five employees over 95 hours to produce and redact,” Pless said, adding redacted information for more than 2,000 pages included customers’ private bank account numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers and energy consumption data.
“EPB initially estimated that fulfilling the request would cost approximately $1,767.07, which Mr. Green paid by check on May 15. The actual cost to EPB’s customers was $3,837.70, and as the Public Records Act specifically provides, that cost is to be paid by the person making the request.”
But Greene reiterated to Tennessee Watchdog that EPB is government-funded and he only wants its advertising records and other public contracts, not files about private customers.
“EPB keeps changing its story,” Greene said, adding he has inspected certain records through what he initially paid.
At the beginning Greene said EPB tried to charge him for the records. After Hodge told EPB officials they couldn’t do that, Greene said EPB instead issued charges for redaction work.
“I went in to inspect records the other week and I got through 500 pages of documents out of 2,100 pages they provided me. There was not a single redaction made. If you review my search terms you’ll see that none of them asked for confidential information.”
For now, Greene won’t take legal action, which he says would cost in excess of $10,000.
“There could be something in those files they don’t want out. Maybe they’ve got something to hide.”
Pless, meanwhile, said EPB’s primary concern and legal obligation is to protect customers’ personal and private information.
EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey has told Tennessee Watchdog that EPB, through its ultra-high-speed Internet, is providing badly needed infrastructure — similar to interstates and sewer systems —to revitalize Chattanooga’s economy.
“Other companies in the private sector were not bringing this kind of connectivity to our community, and we believe that it is critical infrastructure for economic development and, ultimately, quality of life,” Bailey said.
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