Fisher: Citizens do not want more obstacles to find out what their government is doing

Fisher: Citizens do not want more obstacles to find out what their government is doing

January 30th, 2016 by Deborah Fisher in Opinion Columns

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets for the General Assembly and legislature in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Nearly 40 new bills have been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly in recent weeks that would make changes to citizen access to government records or meetings.

As lawmakers head deep into the session, with literally thousands of bills to consider, they should remember a message sent last summer through a series of public hearings and surveys: Citizens do not want more obstacles to finding out what their government is doing.

This view is documented in a new report by Open Records Counsel Ann Butterworth. The report was developed in response to a legislative proposal last year to charge citizens new fees to inspect public records.

The public response exceeded what was expected, drawing so many to the hearings that citizens lined the walls after all the chairs were filled.

"The public's participation and comments in the surveys and hearings indicate an overwhelming concern, by citizens and government representatives, to maintain, and a desire to increase, transparency of government," Butterworth writes in her introduction. She then outlines the opposition she received in response to the fees proposal.

"Keep the records free and easily accessible, our liberty and freedom depend on it," says one citizen quoted in the report. That echoed the tenor of all of the hearings where many gave patriotic and practical speeches about the need for citizen oversight of their government.

The state representative who sponsored the fees bill, Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, withdrew it, but has filed another bill that opens up the public records law.

Other bills introduced this month raise questions. One would create a new exemption allowing the government to keep secret the names of vendors that provide services and goods used to protect government property. Some roll back the requirements on how government gives notice of hearings and meetings.

Others affecting public records or open meetings law were filed as "caption bills," meaning the language in the filed bill is likely to change and a different proposal could emerge later in the session. This also means the public doesn't know what the bill is about yet.

Still, some of the bills filed this month appear to increase government information, such as a bill by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would require a publicly available report on findings of any TBI investigation into an officer-involved shooting. Two bills would require more public participation in meetings at University of Tennessee.

The summer study to gather citizen input on government transparency was the most far-reaching in years. It gathered 952 comments from citizens and government officials.

In addition to documenting opposition to fees, the hearings gave voice to many who have been frustrated over access to government information and the difficulty of overcoming roadblocks.

"Instead of creating a new barrier with a fee, we need to be looking for ways to remove existing bureaucratic obstacles," said public interest advocate Helen Burns Sharp of Chattanooga. "We all need to work at creating a climate where members of the public and government officials realize we are on the same team."

Unfortunately, just a few months after the hearings in late December, a piece of bad news for open government emerged when an audit revealed that the Open Records Counsel in the past year has accumulated a backlog of 603 inquiries that have gone unanswered. The Comptroller's Office, which houses the open records office, is now trying to fix the problem and seeking funding for additional staff in next year's budget.

But the gradual restrictions placed on citizens each year are harder to reverse and, if not checked, eventually cut off their ability to know the workings of their own government.

Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit organization that tracks access to government records and meetings, and threats to it, at www.tcog.info.

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