Gerber: More laws result in more - and less - openness

Gerber: More laws result in more - and less - openness

May 4th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Tennessee's 108th General Assembly passed several laws that affect open meetings laws (the so-called sunshine laws) and open records laws. Some of them spread more sunshine and make open records a little more open. Some don't.

Here's my assessment of some of the legislation that passed.

(v) Recipients of FastTrack grants or loans - used for infrastructure when a private business agrees to locate or expand in Tennessee and create or retain jobs - must report annually to the Department of Economic and Community Development the number of new jobs produced and the cumulative amount of new jobs created during the grant period. The department has to post the data online within 90 days of receiving it. Proponents and bill sponsors (Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley) said this legislation keeps tabs on whether companies that receive assistance in exchange for jobs actually create the jobs they promised. This information can only serve to make sure government - and the public - gets a return on its investment.

(X) Law enforcement agencies can now redact the names of sexual assault victims from public records. The idea is to make the identity of victims of sex crimes confidential. That sounds good, but in reality this bill was designed less to protect rape victim than to intimidate media organizations. It was prompted by a lawsuit against Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County over its refusal to release records in a rape investigation involving former Vanderbilt University football players. A coalition of media organizations, led by The Tennessean and including the Times Free Press, filed a lawsuit over the Vanderbilt case. Even if you support the bill, it's useless. That's because it only applies after a conviction or guilty plea and sentencing. Before someone is convicted and sentenced, the victim's name is still an open record. So, what's the point? Besides, even though the names of sex crime victims have been public, most media organizations do not publish victims' names without their permission.

(v) Within five days of investigating a child's death for child abuse or neglect, the Department of Children's Services must release the child's age and gender and note whether the department had a history with the child. Once the investigation is complete, DCS must release the full case file and whether the case meets the requirement for a child death review. When it comes to the safety of children, more transparency is better.

(X) The governing boards for charter schools can hold meetings by teleconference or video-conference and still be in compliance with with the state's open meetings law. The boards still have to give proper notice of such meetings, and the meetings will have to be accessible and audible to the public. In spite of that last provision, this serves to make the meetings less accessible to the public and puts up another barrier to public participation.

(v) The Tennessee Department of Health's annual inspections of health care facilities and pharmacy surveys are now open records that the public may review. These records include inspections of assisted living centers and compounding pharmacies. Those in assisted living facilities are among the state's most vulnerable residents, and another layer of openness hopefully serves to help keep them safe.

(X) Any information related to safety for school districts or individual schools is now confidential. The legislation allows school boards to go into a closed meeting to discuss school security, although they must provide notice and no other topic can be discussed at the meeting. School officials don't need to let the public know where every lock or alarm is, but parents ought not be barred from participating in meetings about safety plans; that keeps them from knowing if the security at their child's school is adequate.

(X) Members of the public will not be allowed to review investigative files and records of the Alcoholic Beverage and Commission until after all court proceedings and appeals have ended. And all financial information submitted to the ABC by businesses will be confidential. Keeping a businesses' financial information private makes sense, but closing records sets a dangerous precedent.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.