Tag Archives: Open records

Keep Sunshine Week year round

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 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’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.


TCOG warns of threats looming in upcoming legislative session

Records pertaining to 911 calls and personal e-mails sent by public employees on government accounts may be among those legislators attempt to close off next year, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson says in a column published in newspapers statewide today:

The 2011 legislative session is stacking up to be a very bad year for open government in Tennessee, with threats coming from several fronts.

Keep up with all the latest news from TCOG. Like our page on Facebook at facebook.com/tnopengovt and follow us on Twitter at @TNOpenGovt.

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TCOG speaks out as fight over TNInvestco records heads to state Supreme Court

The state’s highest court has been asked to force the release of records pertaining to the $200 million in tax credits for the TNInvestco program, The Tennessean says.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson was quoted in the story:

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the case does raise important questions about access to public records.

“The information that they have collected would be considered, under any other scenario, public bidding information,” he said. “The public has a right to know what went into the decision of who $200 million in state money would go to.”