QUESTION OF THE WEEK
This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. In your experience, are state and local governments and government agencies doing a good job with transparency, or is there room for improvement?
Recent improvements to the Tennessee Public Records Act have helped to streamline the open records process and reduce the time it takes for state residents to view records. Unfortunately, some government officials and bureaucrats - especially at the local level - still impose unreasonable (and sometimes illegal) fees to provide records. Others simply lie about what records are public or even deny that records exist. To make matters worse, there is still little recourse for residents who don't receive the records they are due other than costly court battles.
Ensuring that policy makers comply with sunshine laws, which require that public meetings are open and held with proper notification, remains a problem as well.
Too often, government leaders and bureaucrats forget that there is a difference between following state open-government laws and being truly transparent and accountable. Every city and county in Tennessee should post their budgets, monthly financial statements and check registers online to prove that tax dollars are being spent appropriately.
To further improve government transparency, state lawmakers should end the troubling practice of exempting themselves from state open records laws. Further, they should remove the ridiculous residency requirement to obtain public records in the Volunteer State.
- The Free Press
Public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association and the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
We have noticed that many government agencies are doing a better job on the transparency front, but there is still much need for improvement. We have weaknesses in both our records and meetings laws in Tennessee, but the biggest problem has been lack of education by those in government.
With some changes we made in the open records law in 2008, including creating the Office of Open Records Counsel, we have seen fewer complaints. There has never been a training requirement for those responsible for following these laws, but having the OORC in the state comptroller's office has made a huge difference. Typically, that office gets 1,200-1,400 calls a year from citizens, government employees and the news media. This year, for the first time, citizen inquiries outnumbered government (700 to 599). That tells me more people in government are learning the law.
Founder of Little Chicago Watch, www.littlechicagowatch.com
A transparent and open government never resists sharing documents upon request by an inquiring citizen. Sadly, in Hamilton County some government agencies work diligently to defy the spirit of open records laws.
Our watch group filed an open records request with Hamilton County Attorney Ruben Taylor to obtain files regarding the Aetna Mountain financing boondoggle. Taylor claimed that all documents in his office were attorney-client privileged. Apparently, Taylor's office is the "no sunshine closet" where, regardless of whether a record is related to litigation or not, they never see the light of day.
Other excuses abound to keep the public out of public records. For example, the Electric Power Board created a financial moat against citizens seeking records. We sought to review some EPB executives' emails. EPB responded with a bill for $591.17 to pay for a senior EPB attorney and IT staff to review the emails first. EPB has adopted open records prices that ensure Joe Citizen cannot afford to request records.
Editor and president of TNReport.com
When it comes to exercising your right to obtain records from the government, the best piece of advice you can follow is this: Don't take "no" for an answer.
Government workers are supposed to interpret transparency laws "so as to give (Tennesseans) the fullest possible public access to public records." In simplest terms, all state and local government records are legally available to citizens unless otherwise protected from public scrutiny under the law.
Granted, there are many, many exceptions to that general rule. But it is your duty as a responsible citizen to demand officials provide, in writing, chapter and verse in state law as to why a record in question you are seeking should be kept secret. Once you have the formal refusal in hand, you can ring up the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Office of Open Records Counsel, and verify whether the government entity is acting appropriately.