Learn more about Tennessee’s Open Records Law

Mark your calendars for Thursday, September 6th. Its a brown bag with the queen of Tennessee open records.

Every reporter in Tennessee should have Elisha Hodge on speed dial, and after the SPJ’s lunchtime workshop, perhaps a few more will. 

Get to know the secret weapon that is the state’s Office of Open Records Counsel. Hodge’s job is helping you navigate the roadblocks that often keep valuable information from seeing the light of day. 

Hodge is all yours for one hour. She will make a presentation on open records in the state, then spend most of the time answering your practical questions, so come prepared. Did they have the right to keep you out of that meeting? Can that data really be kept confidential? Are they supposed to charge $0.50 a page for copies? 

Who: Reporters, editors and students (SPJ membership NOT required)
What: Lunch with Elisha Hodge
When: Thursday, September 6th, Noon
Where: First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S. (corner of 18th and Edgehill)
How much: Free (even the parking) 

For those who want to order Panera box lunch for $10, RSVP to breisinger@bizjournals.com.

A second event with Elisha Hodge is scheduled for Tuesday, September 11th on the campus of MTSU, room 104 of the Mass Comm Building at 6:30 pm. More information to follow. 

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Keep Sunshine Week year round

By KENT FLANAGAN
It’s Sunshine Week in America, the one week of the year celebrated by news organizations and open government advocates about keeping government honest.
Watchdogs of the Fourth Estate have made it their duty to report on the actions taken by local, state and federal government. And the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, or TCOG, was created to preserve and improve access to public information.
To be sure, a large majority of our public servants from elected officials to clerks in the city water department are honest and justifiably proud of the work they perform on our behalf. But it only takes one bad player to give everyone else a bad name.
Most of us are aware of the really bad actors who have been brought to justice after ripping off taxpayers. One extreme example is that of Bell, Calif., (pop. 38,000) where eight city officials were arrested and charged in September 2010 for taking millions of dollars in exorbitant salaries for themselves and literally driving the city into bankruptcy.
Fortunately, nothing of that magnitude has occurred in Tennessee, but stories of embezzlement, kickbacks and bribery have occurred here. Does anyone recall Operation Tennessee Waltz, a federal and state sting operation that resulted in indictments and prison time for state legislators and local officials in 2004-2005?
In Tennessee, we take pride in the fact that the state’s Sunshine Law predates the national Sunshine Week by 31 years. In 1974, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the most comprehensive in the nation to insure that public business is conducting in full public view.
Here’s the essence of The Sunshine Law in Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-101:
“The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
Unfortunately, just as there are exceptions to rules of grammar, Tennessee also allowed for limited exceptions to this open meetings policy when the legislature defined public meetings in TCA 8-44-102:
“All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee.”
A “governing body” can be any public board or commission that “the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration and also means a community action agency which administers community action programs….”
It also covers a variety of boards of directors of associations, non-profit or not-for-for profit corporations, authorized and contracted to conduct business on behalf of the public.
OK, I know your mind is growing numb with the idea that this concept is not as straight forward as you had hoped.
That’s where you come into the picture, because as a citizen, you have responsibilities to fulfill.
Most people don’t think about the rates for water or trash pickup or property taxes until the rates go up.
Very simply, it is because representatives elected by YOU and your neighbors establish and maintain all the services you receive as a resident.
Public schools, solid waste disposal, law enforcement, etc., all come with price tags set by boards and commission who represent you.
Yes, reporters from newspapers, television and radio stations generally report on most of those meetings of public boards and commissions. Ultimately, however, it is up to you to take the responsibility of knowing what your duly elected and appointed representatives are doing in your name.
You have the right to attend public meetings and you have the right to obtain the minutes of public meetings. All public bodies are required to post adequate notice in advance of their meetings about when and where the meetings are to be held. How much notice is adequate? That has not been clearly defined by state law.
No deliberations or decisions are allowed to be made outside public meetings. That means that a commissioner cannot ask other commissioners to meet with him to review proposals outside a called public meeting.
In today’s society with all its complexities, it is not feasible for every citizen to attend every public meeting of every public body in the community. It may not possible with available resources for a newspaper or broadcast station to cover them all.
What’s the answer?
Support your primary local news sources, create or join a local neighborhood advocacy group and support groups that advocate for open government, such as TCOG.
If you have a question – any question – about the Sunshine Law or about access to public documents, TCOG is available to help.

Kent Flanagan is executive director of TCOG. He can be reached by phone at (615) 957-2825 or by email at kent.flanagan@gmail.com.

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.

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.