By: Pat Hunter
Do state legislators want to promote open government or hinder the public's right to view public records or the media's right to keep the public informed about how government is proceeding?
Strong laws are essential to assuring accountability and trust in government. Senator Randy McNally has worked to improve accessing public records. He introduced Senate Bill SB3280 and the House Bill HB3637 was introduced by Representative Steve McDaniel. The State and House bills have some very promising Open Records reform. Many improvements to the Open Records law are part of this bill including the establishment of the Ombudsman's Office to assist individuals with open records problems.
State Rep. Jones and Rep. Pruitt have added several bothersome amendments that will weaken Senator McNally's pending legislation.
Rep. Jimmy Matlock, serves on the House State and Local Government Committee and he could make a big difference by supporting Senator McNally and vote against the Open Record amendments (pdf) introduced by Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr., D- Memphis and Rep. Mary Pruitt-D.
Take Action Now - State Legislature
If you are concerned about your right to know and the proposed legislation limiting your ability to access public records, please contact Representative Jimmy Matlock since he sits on the House State and Local Government Committee. This committee will vote on the Rep. Jones and Rep. Pruitt amendments, which are listed below.
Rep. Jimmy Matlock
Phone: 986.1087; Nashville: 615.741.3736
Bill Amendments Undermine Accessing Public Records
While some officials believe in a citizens right to participate in open government, not all officials believe in or favor citizen friendly Open Records policies and laws or open meetings reform. Some officials seem to think that waiting on the public or media takes up too much time and is a great waste of a government employee's time and taxpayer money. That is the argument used by open government opponents including special interest government groups, the Tennessee County Commissioners Association (TCCA) and the Tennessee Municipal League TML
There are some bill amendments making their way through the State Legislature, which undermine public records and Sunshine Law reform such as the amendments introduced by Representative Ulysses Jones, Jr., D- Memphis and State Representative Mary Pruitt, D-Nashville.
Overview of Bill Amendments - Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr.
This bill has some bothersome provisions including:
This bill allows employees in larger municipalities having a population of 155,000 or more based on the 2000 Census, 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. More fees on record requests, adding “actual costs incurred in producing the requested material.” The amendment defines “actual” as the hourly wages of employees if a request “exceeds one (1) hour,” but says charges “SHALL NOT BE LIMITED TO” copying cost and wages. It could apply to the time spent searching for routine records, supervising a citizen’s inspection, and the time and cost of copying records."
Requires that records clerks notify all elected and appointed officials whenever a citizen or reporter inspects a record that contains the official’s name. This is just another form of intimidation.
House Bill HB3637 with its amendments is scheduled for a vote next Tuesday, April 29, 2008 before the House State & Local Government Committee while the Senate Bill is on the agenda of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Behind the Scenes
The public should be very concerned about the power of two special interest groups including that of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association (TCCA) representing the desires of county commissioners of all 95 counties, statewide, and the Tennessee Municipal League TML, which represent the wishes of city council and city government officials.
TCCA and TML, the strong arm of county and city governments, appear to have worked diligently against meaningful Sunshine and Open Records reform. Loudon County commissioners pay yearly membership dues to TCCA who in turn seem to work feverishly to weaken open government laws. Both TCCA and TML have countless hours to spend with elected and non-elected state officials to help craft legislation, which in turn harms the public's right to know.
Friends in High Places
State officials like to help their friends with local government by crafting or amending bills that help them out. Case in point, the Memphis Chronicle newspaper filed a lawsuit alleging Memphis City government had violated the Open Records Law numerous times over a 12-month period.
Memphis government either refused or intentionally delayed the release of public records. Other then a traffic report, all other public records requests require that a written request be made to the city attorney's office, which then forwards the request to the appropriate office or department. The records are then sent to the city attorney's office for review, which add to more delays. This policy is very similar to Mayor Doyle Arp's public records policy, which require that public records request be processed by the Mayor's office. Until Arp was elected as County Mayor, all public records requests went directly to the custodian or department head in charge of the public records.
..."The Tennessee legislature appeared headed toward the biggest expansion of the public records law in three decades, with a compromise bill negotiated by media and open-government advocates and associations representing cities, counties, school boards and other government agencies." - Commercial Appeal
"... Memphis City Atty. Elbert Jefferson Jr. traveled to Nashville on April 9 and told a House subcommittee that requests for public records in Memphis require too much time for city employees to handle and are not always legitimate." "...After testimony last week by the Memphis city attorney, a bill originally intended to make it easier for citizens to access public records was amended to allow local government offices to charge much higher fees for records and to require notification of every public employee and official whose name appears in the records -- impediments that open-government advocates say would sharply restrict access." - Commercials Appeal.
On April 29, 2008 (Tuesday) City Attorney Elbert Jefferson Jr. is expected to speak before the House State and Local Government Committee. I hope that Representative Jimmy Matlock attends this meeting and listens closely and votes against the Rep. Jones and Rep. Pruitt amendments.
Atty. Jefferson, Jr., will likely paint horror stories about public records requests made by the Commercial Appeal reporters. Lets not forget the Tennessee Waltz corruption, which made headline news. Additionally, the City of Memphis and the Commercial Appeal are currently in a legal tussle over the denial of public records. Another motive for Memphis City's request to change the Open Records law, to help themselves, at the expense of open government and the public's right to know!
Search by Bill Number: Senate Bill SB3280 and the House Bill HB3637 (Open Records).