Tag Archives: citizenship

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.

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News-Sentinel: ‘Open records bill fine without changes’

From the Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 17, 2008:

We thought Tennessee lawmakers were seeking to strengthen the state’s Open Records Law, but amendments recently presented by a House subcommittee indicate otherwise and would set openness in local government back decades.

The pernicious items in question agreed to by voice vote of the House State Government subcommittee last week:

  • Cities with a population of 155,000 or more would have additional time to respond to requests for public records, seven business days instead of five.
  • Citizens making records requests would have to pay a fee if the records search takes longer than an hour.
  • Only Tennesseans may request records in writing.
  • Elected and appointed officials should be notified about any records request made about them.

The original version of the bill reflected an agreement between local government groups and media organizations, according to Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. It should remain that way.

In other areas, the bill is a solid step for openness. It requires various agencies that serve local governments, including utilities, to develop a program to educate public officials about open meetings laws and how to remain compliant.

The bill also creates the office of open records counsel to answer questions and provide information to officials and residents regarding public records. The counsel also gathers information on problems and provides public education on the open records and open meetings laws.

Notwithstanding these positive highlights, the recent amendments pose a hindrance to the openness that state officials said they needed after the Tennessee Waltz scandal three years ago that resulted in the indictment of five sitting or former lawmakers on charges of bribery and corruption. All have been convicted or pleaded guilty.

Allowing employees in larger cities two extra days to avoid their duty to the public might be a backhanded statement about their inefficiency. Requiring fees is a slippery slope that legislators should avoid. Gibson rightly worries that records keepers could charge as much as they like, making it difficult to get public records.

Limiting open-records requests only to Tennesseans is particularly short-sighted. The Volunteer State is not a fortress protected by some huge moat. Tennessee is bordered by eight other states and has at least a half dozen interstates passing through it. Businesses such as insurance companies as well as private individuals and news gathering organizations should have access to public records in the state.

Finally, the notification requirement is a thinly veiled attempt to legalize intimidation of people requesting public records. It is a clear indication that elected officials sometimes forget they are public servants accountable to those who elect them.

This bill with its amendments is to come before the House State and Local Government Committee Tuesday, April 22. We urged the committee to scrap the amendments that are designed to hinder openness and approve the original bill that shows progress on open records.