Jack McElroy: Public Records Law is a secret to success

By Jack McElroy

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The 5-year anniversary of Black Wednesday came and went last week. I hadn't even thought about it until WUOT aired a segment of its "Dialogue" show looking back on the day that the County Commission laid waste to the Open Meetings Act.

The News Sentinel sued and won, and, as a result, became associated with the "sunshine law."

As important as that law is, though, the real, day-to-day bulwark that guards government transparency in Tennessee is the Public Records Law, which gives citizens the right to inspect and copy all records produced by local government.

Of course, when the government says "all," it doesn't really mean ALL. There are myriad exceptions, some listed in the law itself and others scattered throughout the Tennessee legal code.

Add to that an array of court decisions that have exempted records, and the effect of the law can be bewildering for bureaucrats and journalists alike.

We take the approach that a record is open unless shown to be otherwise. Often, it seems, agencies take the opposite approach. The result is an almost daily struggle with recalcitrant officials to get information released.

Last week's stories about the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. were an example.

After federal tax returns revealed President Gloria Ray's extraordinary compensation, the News Sentinel, WBIR, Channel 10, and other news organizations requested an array of documents from KTSC under the act.

But KTSC is not, strictly, a government body. It's a nonprofit organization that is paid from the hotel-motel tax to do work for the city and county.

Courts have ruled, though, that if an organization is the "functional equivalent" of a government agency, it is covered by the law.

KTSC fits that category. Most of its funding is tax dollars, and its role is called for in state law. But the issue had never been tested, and Bill Shory, the WBIR news director, and I discussed teaming up for a legal fight if it became necessary.

For a while, it seemed that might be the case. KTSC promised to deliver documents. But deadlines were missed, and the incomplete records that were dribbled out raised more questions than they answered.

The newsrooms kept the pressure on, though, and Wednesday the dam broke.

David Duncan resigned as KTSC board chair, and vice chair Susan Brown took over, announcing: "Upon the advice of legal counsel, we have determined that all the documents are, in fact, public records. Rather than release the documents in a piecemeal fashion, we have decided it is more efficient to release them all at one time to anyone who has asked for them."

The board retained the Moxley Carmichael public relations firm to assist, and a foot-high stack of documents was delivered late Wednesday evening. They revealed the full extent of Ray's sweetheart deal.

The following morning the county and city mayors called for her resignation.

Remember Deep Throat's advice in "All the Presidents Men?" "Follow the money."

In Tennessee, the Public Records Law is the critical tool that makes that possible.

Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300, at or through The Upfront Page at