One of the first things you have to figure out when you're a journalist is how and when to use Sunshine laws. The federal government does things one way. All 50 states do things somewhat differently, from the feds and from each other. Every agency you contact has a slightly different protocol — and that's assuming the agencies are even aware that they are subject to open records laws, or that they follow the law, because many don't.
As a journalist, open records are essential to my work. Very rarely have the records I've pulled uncovered scandalous wrongdoing, but they do regularly provide a fuller picture of the events shaping the cities in which we live. Officials' emails can tell how a project happens or how it falls apart. Police reports and 911 recordings can show what really happened during a terrible crime.
But the truly wonderful thing about open records is that they are not just open to journalists; they are open to everyone. They're open to every single person in the state of Tennessee, regardless of age or race or whether he or she is a registered voter. As the law states, "All state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law."
But the last clause is where a problem lies. Despite the fact Tennessee borders eight states, and three of its largest metro areas have bedroom communities in other states, there is no requirement that records be provided to out-of-state residents. This creates a situation where thousands of people work in Tennessee, pay sales and hospitality taxes in Tennessee, but may not have access to any records not otherwise publicly available by virtue of their lack of a Tennessee driver's license. People like me, a professional journalist who lives literally two blocks — three-tenths of a mile — from the Tennessee state line, who gets mail from a Tennessee post office, who spends all her money in Chattanooga, and yet cannot pull a single file from the city without having to get a friend to submit the request.
The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing in state law that says a government agency has to turn down out-of-state residents, or even that they should. The city of Knoxville has changed its policy over the past year. "Our default is to fulfill media requests from out of state, unless they are overly burdensome or obviously unreasonable," says city spokesperson Jesse Mayshark. The city of Nashville's press secretary, Sean Braisted, says, "Metro Nashville is committed to promoting openness and transparency wherever possible," and it fulfills out-of-state requests on a case by case basis.
Yet the three cities that actually sit on the borders — Chattanooga, Memphis, and Bristol — refuse all out-of-state requests on principle. It's for consistency's sake, I was told by Janina Muller in the city of Chattanooga's legal department.
The actions of the city of Chattanooga affect far more that just its residents. Those actions affect the residents of the surrounding metro area, too, some of which just happens to be in another state.
One simply cannot run an open and transparent government when one is refusing access to the most basic sorts of city records to all tax-paying citizens, even if they happen to pay property taxes in another state. I hope that Mayors Andy Berke of Chattanooga and Jim Strickland of Memphis will revise their policies to mirror that of Mayor Madeline Rogero in Knoxville. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people only works when all people have equal access to information.
Cari Wade Gervin is a freelance journalist and former TFP staff writer currently at work on a book about Chattanooga.