IN THE NEWS
KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL
Editorial: Tennessee openness laws need to be strengthened
By NEWS SENTINEL EDITORIAL BOARD
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Public decision-making and the availability of records are the two hallmarks of open government.
In Tennessee, the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act hold government officials accountable to the people. The laws, however, have exemptions and issues with compliance that need to be addressed.
Last week, open government advocates celebrated Sunshine Week, a nationwide observation of the importance of open government sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Tennessee Open Meetings Act was enacted in 1974. At the time, it was one of the toughest in the nation.
The statute contains some flaws, however, that need to be addressed.
The state of Tennessee has at least 200 boards and commissions, according to The Associated Press, that are required to hold open meetings under the act. But there is no policy or law directing them to uniformly inform the public of their meetings. And there are no penalties for violations.
The Open Meetings Act, also called the sunshine law, requires "adequate public notice" be given but doesn't specify how that should be done.
The AP report published Sunday noted that many boards don't publish meeting notices on the state's website, and some don't appear to publish notices at all.
The only penalty for sunshine law violations is that a panel found in violation must reconsider its actions in public. Knox County commissioners, after being found guilty of violating the sunshine law in 2007 as a result of Black Wednesday, ran the risk of being held in contempt of court for future violations, but the condition expired after one year.
The state of Florida could provide a model for Tennessee to follow. Florida's Administrative Procedures Act guides state panels in how to give public notice of their meetings. And the state can levy fines for violations — $500 for unintentional violations, plus court costs to citizens who prevail in an open government lawsuit.
Tennessee lawmakers should consider strengthening the state's law through similar measures.
The Tennessee Public Records Act is designed to give citizens access to the documentation of state and local governments. There are numerous exemptions, some reasonable — autopsy photos, for example — and others not so reasonable, such as the files of closed cases of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Closed TBI files, in particular, should be galling to Knox Countians, who cannot review for themselves the events surrounding the resignation and criminal conviction of ex-Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner.
State and local agencies vary in their compliance with the Public Records Act, with some workers being almost completely ignorant of its requirements. Uniform policies and training would help.
Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed revisions to his administration's policy to create a uniform statewide protocol for responding to records requests. Andrea Zelinski of TNReport, a statewide online news service, reports Haslam is looking to establish some consistency across state agencies.
That will help, as long as state officials don't use this as an opportunity to shield records from the public. TNReport also noted Haslam's complaint that occasionally someone will go on a "fishing expedition" by requesting large volumes of documents that tie up employees and cost the state money.
The governor, to his credit, has met with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the AP for advice on how to craft the new policy.
Sunshine Week 2012 has ended, but the need for advocates to push for more openness in state and local governments remains.