Sunshine Week observed: Government must be held accountable

Sunshine Week observed: Government must be held accountable

March 9th, 2013 by Drew Johnson in Opinion Free Press

Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual effort to raise awareness of the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Over the course of the next week, the Free Press editorial page will publish a number of editorials that feature information obtained through open records requests. We also will discuss ways to improve government transparency and accountability and, hopefully, encourage citizens to use government open records and open meetings laws to hold policymakers and bureaucrats accountable.

Open records and freedom of information laws allow taxpayers to make sure that their hard-earned dollars are used well. Sunshine provisions, such as Tennessee's Open Meetings Act, ensure the public's business actually is conducted in public, rather than in the recesses of a smoke-filled room.

As an editorial writer and opinion page editor, and in my prior career as a policy analyst and government watchdog, open records have played a vital role in my ability to expose wasteful spending, abuse of power, hypocrisy, cronyism and corruption.

It was an open records request that allowed the free market think tank I founded to inform the world that environmental crusader Al Gore is actually an electricity-devouring hypocrite. A public record obtained from the Nashville Electric Service showed that Gore's monthly electricity bills averaged $1,359 and his electric usage regularly reached 20 times the national household average.

More recently, an open records request allowed this page to prove that Missy Crutchfield, the head of the Chattanooga Department of Education, Arts & Culture, misled city residents when she claimed city auditors told her that it was fine to ignore financial mismanagement in her department.

Open records also indicated that former East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble used his city-issued credit card to spend thousands of tax dollars at restaurants and ice cream shops. Gobble resigned less than a week after our report.

Obtaining government records is not always as simple as it should be. I once sued the state to obtain public documents after I was charged $387,321 to review a set of state government emails and office memos.

Since that time, state lawmakers have taken steps to reduce the cost and improve the accessibility of government records in Tennessee. But not enough.

In December, an EPB attorney informed an employee of the Times Free Press that the electric company would charge more than $12,000 to fulfill several requests for public records. Such oppressive fees are not only unreasonable, they are a clear effort to prevent information from reaching the public.

In addition to occasionally facing prohibitive costs, Tennesseans also are prevented from a number of types of public records because of the more than 200 exemptions written into state law.

Some exemptions, such as credit card numbers and the names and addresses of children, are justified. Others, such as emails and text messages sent between state lawmakers, for example, are outrageous affronts to the concept of open, accountable government. To make matters worse, more than a dozen pieces of legislation currently are filed in the Tennessee General Assembly to carve out additional open records exemptions. If passed, the bills would further limit the number of government documents available to the public.

As recently as Friday, Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell was lobbying Tennessee lawmakers to allow private meetings of local government officials as long as a quorum isn't present. This chilling scheme, which would allow local governments to discuss legislation, trade votes and broker deals without citizens' knowledge, is further proof that we all must remain vigilant against efforts to allow government to operate without the oversight of the people it serves.

After all, federal, state and local open meetings and open records laws are citizens' only real hope for a clean, honest government.