Author Archives: Jennifer Peebles

TCOG’s Gibson criticizes censorship of report on fire at military flare plant

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson is among those who have spoken out against the heavy censorship by the state of a report on last year’s fire at the Kilgore Flares plant in West Tennessee. The fire injured six people, some of them severely.

About half of the 19-page report on the fire was blacked out by the state before it was released, the Jackson Sun reported. The state said it was censored due to national security concerns. The plant makes decoy flares intended to be fired by U.S. Air Force and Navy combat aircraft to deflect incoming missiles from enemy attackers.

From the Sun story:

But Frank Gibson, of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said he thinks the report should be released in its entirety.

“Richard Nixon thought the (secrecy of the) Pentagon papers were of national importance also,” he said, “But they ended up being printed.

“Since this is a major incident,” he said, “and they have been found guilty and been fined, what would be the legal basis for withholding that information?”

Keep up with all of TCOG’s important work by “liking” our page on Facebook and following us on Twitter, where we’re @TNOpenGovt. Contact Frank Gibson at tncog@comcast.net.

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TCOG director Frank Gibson quoted in USA Today by editor Paulson

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson was quoted in a Sunshine Week column by Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today:

“It’s part human nature and part power” when officials fail to disclose information to the public, says Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “Public officials are fearful that if they’ve made a mistake, they’ll get into trouble if it gets exposed, so they try to hang onto everything.”

1K+ people contacted state open records ombudsman last year, report shows

From the Knoxville News Sentinel‘s Tom Humphrey:

NASHVILLE – More than 1,200 people contacted the Office of Open Records Counsel during the past year, and most of them were government officials, according to a recent report.

The annual report shows 1,213 inquiries, all but about 100 dealing with access to public records and the remainder with interpretation of the state’s open meetings law. A majority of the inquiries, 628, came from government officials, while average citizens contacted the office 492 times.

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a member of an advisory council that works with the office, said the figures are significant because they show the office is working as envisioned when created in 2008.

Keep up with all the latest news about TCOG’s important work. Become a fan of our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @TNOpenGovt.

TCOG chief: Sen. Kelsey misguided on public notice bill

By Frank Gibson, TCOG Executive Director

I remember my initiation into a college leadership society. Blindfolded and taken into the woods somewhere in Blount County, we were paraded one-
by-one in front of student leaders, who would recite some moral maxim, poke us on the chest and ask: “Get the point?”

That flashback (or senior moment) came as state Sen. Brian Kelsey lectured fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on why it would be a waste of taxpayer money to “publish” notices of proposed constitutional amendments anywhere but on one of two possible state government websites.

No, it wasn’t an urge to poke the Republican Senator from Germantown with a “Get the point?” That would violate every protocol of civility and would disrespect not only his elected office but his right to an opinion. It was more to do with how misguided and unnecessary his proposal was.

His point was: Why pay to “publish” something “in the back pages of newspapers” near the classifieds when “constitutional amendments are front page stories?”

It would be better and cheaper, according to Senator Kelsey, to post the notice on the Secretary of State‘s or the General Assembly website because the Internet is “a free, environmentally friendly, and better source to notify the public….”

I’m not sure where he got this “free” Internet. My monthly Internet service bill is five times higher than my newspaper, and that doesn’t count the cost of the computer.

The senator’s point on “free” was that anyone who does not own a computer — one in four households — can run down to the public library every day to see what ran on those two websites that day. His resolution didn’t even specify where to look.

What is the point? Don’t “publish” a notice — as the Constitution requires — in a newspaper of general circulation which becomes so identified because it’s where the public finds coverage of government and other information of general interest?

To Senator Kelsey, public notice is “a special interest giveaway of taxpayer dollars.” He told the Judiciary Committee “it’s a privilege that’s been granted to them (newspapers). That’s not a reason to be increasing state spending in this budget environment.”

Senator Kelsey is on a three-year mission to constitutionally ban a state income tax that some contend is already banned. His goal is to remove arguments that could be raised against his resolution, including a $20,000 budget item.

He correctly noted in a newspaper op-ed that Democrats had blocked his amendment in the past. That is not a factor anymore. Senator Kelsey’s party has firm control of both the House and Senate. So, what’s the point? He admonished all legislators to keep their campaign promise of cutting government
spending.

He ignores — by choice or convenience — other serious implications of his proposal.

If the legislature sets the precedent of posting its notices on the Internet, how can it tell city and county officials they can’t do likewise? Bills by city and county governments were already filed when the Judiciary Committee rejected Senator Kelsey’s resolution on a 5-4 vote. So were proposals to put the Secretary of State in the business of posting foreclosure notices and legislation to give that office the power to determine which publications meets the qualifications to run public notices.

Former state Attorney General Paul Summers used some of the results of a 2010 statewide survey by Connected Tennessee to show the danger of changing the decades-old system of public notice on something as important as amending the state Constitution.

Proposals to move local government public notices to local government websites contain interesting language to justify the move. One, from Chattanooga, states:

“WHEREAS, there has been a steady decline in newspaper readership in the past several decades, while, at the same time there has been an increase in the number of households with access to the Internet; and

“WHEREAS, many counties and municipalities maintain an official government web site that is available to the public twenty-four hours per day; and

“WHEREAS, many legal notices published solely in newspapers go unread and unnoticed by the public because casual newspaper readers generally do not read the legal notices section; and

“WHEREAS, permitting the publication of legal notices on an official government web site will make those notices more easily accessible to a greater number of people, thereby promoting increased public participation in government; now, therefore.”

I’m not certain where those broad assumptions come from, but an analysis of the survey by the broadband advocacy group Connected Tennessee showed some glaring statistics beyond the finding that 25 percent of “households” do not own a computer. Among them:

  • 63 percent of households reported they had never “interacted” with a state government website.
  • 73 percent reported they had not “reacted” with a local government website.
  • 62 percent reported “reading online newspapers or other news sources” on the internet. The only web “activity” that scored higher was the use of Internet search engines.
  • A third of Tennessee county governments don’t have websites.

Nationally, 38 percent of senior citizens do not go online for any information.The numbers get even starker when you look at county-by-county numbers. That breakdown on the Connected Tennessee website helps show the disparities between newspaper readership and Internet access and use.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers represents all or part of seven counties in northeast Middle Tennessee, right outside of Nashville. Audited newspaper circulation data show 66 percent of residents in those seven counties read newspapers. Connected Tennessee’s data show 68 percent of households own a computer, 49 percent have access to broadband Internet, 36 percent have looked at a state website, 22 percent have “interacted”
with a local government web site, and 55 percent get information from newspaper websites and other online news sources. One county which has no city or county website showed more than 80 percent buy weekly or daily newspapers.

When you look at Senator Kelsey’s home county, 81 percent of households own computers, 71 percent have broadband access, 62 percent have not interacted with a state website, and 69 percent have not looked at a local government website, but 74 percent reported reading online newspapers.

And that doesn’t include the thousands who read the Commercial Appeal, Memphis Daily News and other local publications in Shelby County.
Despite Senator Kelsey’s protestations, this makes online public notices a major open government issue.

And, that is the point.

Contact Frank Gibson at tncog@comcast.net. And please become a fan of TCOG’s page on Facebook: We’re http://www.facebook.com/TnOpenGovt.

TCOG’s Gibson quoted on efforts by Tennessee courts to shield sex crime victims’ names

From the AP:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee appeals court is increasing efforts to shield the identities of adult victims of sex crimes.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has had a policy in place for years to use initials in place of names in opinions published online. These opinions can go into graphic detail about the sexual abuse of women and children.

Chambers want to close records pertaining to business recruitment

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson was quoted in a story by the Commercial Appeal (later picked up by the  AP) on the issue:

But Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition For Open Government, warned that changes to the Public Records Act open up a can of worms. Exemptions that are intended to be specific are often interpreted quite broadly by the officials in charge of those records. That means the officials won’t release information that is supposed to be public.

“It gets abused by people who don’t understand what the exemption was designed to protect in the first place,” Gibson said.

 

New governor Bill Haslam loosens disclosure requirements for executive branch employees

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson was among those quoted by TNReport on the governor’s executive order.