NASHVILLE — Bill Haslam’s second executive order as governor was a pledge to promote greater transparency in Tennessee government. Almost six months into the Republican’s administration, there’s little that shows an enhanced dedication to openness.
Though aides in January touted the transparency order as a major development, that claim already had been undermined by directive No. 1 from Haslam, which scuttled requirements for the governor and his top aides to disclose the amount of their outside income.
“He got off to a rough start with that significant step back,” said Dick Williams of the advocacy group Common Cause. “It kind of stuck out like a sore thumb.”
And Haslam hasn’t done much since then — either through legislation or action — to deliver improvements in openness in state government over what existed under his Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen.
For example, when Haslam decided to raise the salaries of 15 department heads by at least 11 percent, he didn’t see fit to inform the public or lawmakers, who found out about the change weeks later from an Associated Press analysis of salary records.
Robert O’Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, said the hefty raises for Cabinet members came as a shock because other government workers were slated only to receive a 1.6 percent bump.
“It’s conceivable that they may be necessary,” O’Connell said. “But the way we had to find out that it was happening? That left state employees sort of raw.”
Haslam was asked in a recent AP interview about what he’s done to promote transparency in government. He said openness has been an overall theme he’s stressed with his top aides.
“I think we’ve done a good job of putting a lot more government open and available on the Internet,” he said. “And we’ve let all our commissioners know that if there’s information that people want, whether it’s a legislator or media person, it’s our responsibility to get it to them.
“And I think by and large we’ve done that.”
But the governor’s legal department has taken several weeks to produce public records, far longer than was the case under his predecessor.
For example, it took four weeks to turn around a routine AP request for correspondence and records regarding Haslam’s order overturning Bredesen’s decision to close a privately run prison in Whiteville.
The 39 pages of materials ultimately released to the AP did not contain any details from the meeting or other materials about why the $31 million decision was reached. They consisted mostly of constituent correspondence and planning emails for a meeting between the governor and executives with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.
The TSEA, which represents workers at state-run prisons, has never received a full explanation for why Whiteville’s funding was extended, O’Connell said. The organization is troubled that there were no official records available either, he said.
“You would think that somebody somewhere would be responsible for reducing to writing what was discussed or agreed,” he said. “But an obvious method to avoid having to turn things over is to not write them down.”
Alexia Poe, Haslam’s communications director, said the governor’s office was surprised by the volume of records requests and that the legal staff was preoccupied during the session with shepherding an administration bill to cap damages from civil lawsuits through the Legislature.
Haslam acknowledged that “30 days is a long time,” and said he would look into speeding up the process.
“Maybe we need to look at how long it’s taking to get through our legal folks,” he said. “But that feels like something we can do faster.”
responses late, thin
In Kentucky, the state is supposed to respond to a request for public records within three business days. Tennessee’s law is laxer, setting a seven-day limit to produce documents, deny them or explain when they will be available. Haslam’s team routinely says it must have more time to produce records and when they are released, there isn’t much in them.
An AP request for records from the Department of Economic and Community Development about a controversial arrangement to waive Amazon.com’s requirement to collect sales taxes produced vague results.
The online retailer threatened to cancel plans for East Tennessee warehouses if the Legislature reneged on the arrangement. But the 50 pages of released documents were largely composed of press clippings.
The documents do show a conscious effort to refuse to engage the public on the Amazon tax question.
A report by Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press about lawmakers’ decision not to force Amazon to collect sales taxes received the following response:
“My guess is you’ve already read this morning’s story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which makes me think our decision simply not to return Andy’s phone call was the right one,” ECD communications chief Mark Drury wrote in an email to Commissioner Bill Hagerty and others. “Not sure that any response we could make at this point would be helpful to the situation.”
ON THE FENCE
Haslam, who said during the campaign that he supported “the principle of having an open-door policy,” was made available to the Capitol Hill Press Corps less often — and for far less time — during the legislative session than was the case with Bredesen. Aides often cited the new governor’s packed schedule for the brevity of media access.
The Haslam administration also didn’t take a public position on several legislative measures seeking to restrict access to public records. Those include efforts to block 911 emergency recordings, impose fees for inspecting government documents, ease public notice rules for foreclosures and allow local governments to make parts of economic development deals confidential.
Each of those measures failed, but not because pressure from the governor.