Tag Archives: TCOG

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

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.

Gibson: Debate over online meeting notices shows ‘some politicians place a low value on openness’

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, takes on in his latest column the push by some public leaders to change Tennessee’s law to allow public meeting notices to be published online, and not in local newspapers. Here it is on the Murfreesboro Post’s site.

They say it is to save money, but the truth of the matter in both cases is that some politicians place a low value on openness.

“Transparency” is a word that looks good on campaign literature and sounds good in speeches.

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.

Clip art by School-Clipart.com.

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.”

TCOG speaks out on substitute judge records

TCOG Executive Director Frank Gibson was quoted in The Tennessean‘s report on substitute judges in Davidson County — specifically, about General Sessions Court Judge Gloria Dumas’ use of her personal lawyer in handling a request for records pertaining to substitutes:

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said such practices raise concerns.

“It’s not just a red flag. It’s outrageous,” Gibson said.

“The court … still has the legal obligation under the law to make those records available,” Gibson said. “It’s being filed for a public reason. What does Judge Dumas’ attorney have to do with the government office that has those records? Zilch. He has no authority whatsoever.”


TCOG weighs in on Monroe Co. autopsy report left in limbo

TCOG Executive Director Frank Gibson was quoted by the Knoxville News-Sentinel on the repeated delays in granting access to the autopsy report in a high-profile homicide investigation — that of Monroe County Election Commission Chairman Jim Miller:

“And there is a deadline of seven days to respond,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “That deadline was put in there to stop such shenanigans as (simply ignoring a request).”