The 2011 legislative session is stacking up to be a very bad year for open government in Tennessee, with threats coming from several fronts.
The drumbeat has already begun to remove sunshine meeting and other public notices from newspapers, making city, county and state websites the sole source of notice to the public and the news media.
There are other questionable proposals, including one to close all records of 911 emergency calls and dispatches. Proponents say it is to protect the privacy of callers, but it could diminish public oversight of local emergency operations.
Another proposal we expect to see would make citizens pay to look at public records. Currently, the government can only charge for copies and per-hour labor charges for any time over one hour that it takes a public employee to provide copies.
And then, there is certain to be legislation to ensure that e-mails of public officials and public employees – those received and sent on government computers — remain closed if they claim they are “personal” or if they deal with “private business” work done on the government clock. One section of state law now says all e-mails “may” be subject to public inspection. Another says they’re public “if made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business.”
The city of Chattanooga disclosed in late November that it was collaborating with the Tennessee Municipal League – an association of some 300 towns and cities — to get the General Assembly to move sunshine and other notices to city websites.
Last year, the city of Murfreesboro met with its local legislative delegation to push for support of a bill to say posting on the city’s website would constitute “adequate” notice. The mayor claimed public notice was costing the city $100,000 a year.
Tennessean President and Publisher Carol Hudler said local government would learn quickly that their websites don’t reach nearly as many readers as newspapers do with their printed and web products. “They don’t get that readership, nor will they,” she said.
Hamilton County Chancery Court Clerk Lee Akers agreed, explaining he prefers to publish legal notices in the medium that delivers the most readership and exposure.
While Breeland, the city spokesman, assumes everybody has a computer and is connected to the internet, Akers noted: “There’s a lot of people who still don’t know what the internet is.”
The latest state research, conducted earlier this year, found that one out of four Tennesseans don’t have computers or access to the web, and that more than twice as many Tennesseans get information from newspaper websites than local government websites. National research found 38 percent of American’s 65 years old and older don’t turn to the web for information.
For advocates of open and more transparent government, there are other concerns. Among them are the principles espoused in a different context by the late President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.” Without assigning nefarious motives by local government officials, can the public trust everyone in government to post notices when and how they are supposed to provide them?
Meanwhile, news reports of a controversial lawsuit in Rutherford County illustrated one of the pitfalls of changing the system.
The Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission got sued by a group of anti-Muslim residents who claimed the county did not give adequate notice of a meeting where it planned to review a site development plan for a proposed new mosque.
The county ran a public notice in the Murfreesboro Post three weeks before its regular meeting on May 24. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claimed the county should have published the agenda with the notice to show the mosque site plan would be considered. Zoning was not an issue, because the land was zoned for a religious use when the local Muslim community bought it.
A Rutherford County chancellor upheld the county’s position that it was not required to publish the agenda and refused to stop construction. Hidden underneath the anti-Muslim, anti-terrorism rhetoric during eight days of testimony in the trial was a little-noticed disclosure.
In the past, the county had published the sunshine notice in the newspaper and posted the meeting agenda on its website. That didn’t happen for the May 24 meeting. Asked to explain why the May 24 agenda wasn’t posted, county Planning Director Doug Demosi explained it was an “oversight.”
Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government – a nonprofit, non-partisan organization.