Open Government 

Your Right to Know

By: Pat Hunter

On March 6th, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Baker Institute at the UT campus sponsored an Open Government lecture to learn more about accessing public records. The panelists consisted of Senator Randy McNally, Chair of the Tennessee Open Government Study Committee, Frank Gibson, Executive Director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), Don Dare, WATE consumer reporter, David Keim, Knoxville News Sentinel, assistant managing editor and Jamie Foster, WATE News Director, moderator. 

Senator McNally spoke about  several recommendations to assist the public with open records pending before the State General Assembly. This includes the establishment of an Ombudsman office to assist the public with public record problems.

Also, the creation of an advisory committee under the office of the Comptroller. This committee would take the data that comes through that office to identify the problems and advise the Comptroller and State Legislature on how best to deal with public records problems.

An education component required that public records be made available within 4-days or an individual would have to issue an explanation for the denial of the public records. All changes were incorporated into Senate Bill SB 3275.

Another piece of legislation basically incorporated the open records portions of those recommendations and omitted the change of a definition of an open meeting and executive sessions recommendations.

Another important change, which is proposed, allows denials of public records to be heard in circuit court and chancery court. Both bills were heard by a legislative sub-committee and most of the open records recommendations were accepted. This committee decided not to change the definition of an open meetings from two to three officials for the time being.      

Frank Gibson, TCOG Exec. Director, recognized Senator McNally for his dedication, hard work and contributions to the proposed open records legislation. Gibson gave examples of how to obtain public records and he spoke about pending legislation to the open records and open meetings laws. He said that Senator McNally had worked hard over the years to make sure that the public had a fair playing field to view and obtain pubic records. 

Gibson gave a brief overview about the open records law; little has been done to improve the open records law since it was enacted in 1957. However, state lawmakers, Tennessee General Assembly, have added about 157 exemptions and the list is growing. Although some exemptions are justified, its been too easy to grant exemptions for any official wanting to add an exemption to the law.

Gibson also spoke about how the denial of public records involve costly litigation but rarely does the person denied public records get reimbursed on legal fees. TCOG has agreed with representatives of local government not to pursue anything with the Sunshine Law until discussions can begin this spring. Gibson seemed to think that many of the Sunshine problems can be handled with education because many city administrators lack training on open records and open meetings laws.  

Don Dare, WATE reporter, commented how TV reporters have short deadlines to meet when broadcasting on television. TV reporters do not have the time that newspapers may have to obtain public records. He gave examples of how to obtain public records information.

The lecture ended with a handout called "What's your government doing? This publication was provided by the Society of Professional Journalists, East Tennessee Chapter. The handbook provides helpful information about accessing public records under Tennessee state law, and basics about accessing public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) and much more.

(Note: The Hunter Report will give timely updates about pending public records legislation making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly. State Representative Jimmy Matlock represents parts of Loudon and Monroe Counties. He serves on the State and Local Government committee, which will discuss and vote on pending open records legislation. More to come on this issue.)