As Sunshine Week 2015 ends, the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists assesses recent successes and failures in the ongoing effort to make Tennessee government more transparent for its citizens.
In the success column are these recent developments:
- The speaker of the Tennessee House requested that secret committee meetings end so that the public can witness discussions of pending bills.
- A Greene County judge held that public meetings must be reasonable audible to attendees. Officials sitting with their backs to the audience, refusing to use readily available microphones and whispering while they deliberate public business is not a proper public meeting.
- In a case involving Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a judge reaffirmed that email messages in connection with the transaction of official business are public records.
- The state attorney general opined that Tennessee law does not permit public hospitals to meet in a closed session to discuss bonuses or salaries.
- The Tennessee Supreme Court announced during Sunshine Week that it is considering rule changes to allow reporters to use more electronic tools in courtrooms.
Unfortunately, ongoing policies and pending legislation offset recent successes in the battle to let citizens know how their government is operating.
Fees to see public records
Most ominous perhaps is a bill (SB328/HB315) that will levy fees to inspect public records. Citizens, including news media and public interest advocacy groups, who don’t have financial resources to pay what government entities determine is the going rate will simply be out of luck, and records clearly within the realm of the Public Records Act will remain secret.
Opponents of the bill have compared it to a poll tax and to holding public records hostage and negotiating ransom.
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Cordova, are sponsors of the bill at the behest of the Tennessee School Boards Association. Several school boards, including the Blount County board, complained that records requests, even those made by county officials, overburden their staffs. Although staffs receive tax-funded salaries, the TSBA seeks additional money through user fees. Estimates several years ago when a similar measure failed put the cost to citizens at $1.7 million annually.
High school athletics
Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville are sponsors of a bill that would exempt the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association from the Sunshine laws. Though its oversight of interscholastic sports across the state for both public and private schools, the TSSAA is the “functional equivalent” of a government agency, a state Court of Appeals held.
The bill would shroud in secrecy information about tuition scandals, the use of ineligible players, player concussions and any number of other issues.
University of Tennessee Athletics Board
Despite efforts of the media and others to gain access to this multi-million dollar operation, UT officials insist this board is off limits to the public.
Officials’ attitudes toward sunshine laws
The majority of public officials appear to understand that the Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act work to their advantage to demonstrate to the electorate that their offices are performing well. A few, however, promote the attitude that the Sunshine laws interfere with their work.
The more than 350 exemptions to the PRA safeguard individual privacy, trade secrets, reputations and a host of other interests from disclosure. The Open Meetings Act allows for executive sessions to handle specified sensitive matters.
Yet, recent instances display either a lack of understanding or else intentional distortions these two laws. For example, the Knox County sheriff recently said the Sunshine law kept him from discussing public safety with the Knoxville police chief because both serve on a committee dealing with a new 911 system. A spokesman for the TSSAA claimed that personal financial information of parents of high school athletes could be open for public inspection if the organization remains subject to Sunshine laws. A Hamilton County commissioner said “the law stinks” if it doesn’t allow commissioners to telephone or text each other privately during deliberations at meetings.
Resources exist for all public officials and their designated records custodians to educate themselves about requirements of Sunshine laws. Among such resources are the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the County Technical Service, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Office of Open Records Counsel. A phone call or email to any of these groups, all of which have websites, can bring help.
Submitted for publication by Dorothy Bowles and Mike Martinez