State Sunshine Law Leaves Tennesseans in the Dark

June 3, 2008 9:49PM

Drew Johnson “All state, county and municipal records … shall at all times, during business hours, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.” Those words – the heart of the Tennessee Open Records Act – empower Tennesseans with the ability demand documents, correspondences, contracts and other information in order to hold their government accountable. If a Tennessean wants to view a state building contract, he can. If a taxpayer wants to know what was purchased with city-managed credit cards, no one can stop her. If a voter wants to see his mayor’s emails, that’s his right. At least that’s how the Open Records Act is supposed to work. In practice, however, when Tennesseans recently requested such information, they receive responses including: “I am a little stressed right now, so I appreciate it if you don’t add to that,” “Please explain to me why you need bills on any credit or debit cards used by the city,” and “You will need to send a formal letter with references that we can verify.” As the president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free market think tank that does its fair share of government watchdog work, I experience government’s attempts to restrict public information firsthand. Recently, TCPR took the Department of Finance and Administration to court in order to force the Department to hand over documents that, despite being requested nine months earlier, had still not been made available. The Department of Economic and Community Development took five months to reply to a TCPR open records request…just to let us know they were denying it. I was even asked to pay $387,321 to review emails requested from the Department of Revenue. In the final days of the legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly claimed to improve state open government laws. Their “improvements,” however, amounted to the open government equivalent of fixing a leaky roof with a well-placed hunk of bubble gum; they did nothing to address the real problems plaguing Tennessee’s defective transparency laws. The legislature determined that records requests must be addressed within seven days. This improves the Open Records Act’s current language, which states that public records must be made available within a “reasonable” time. While this new requirement may prevent barriers to open records such as Finance and Administration’s nine month delay, the simplest request will likely take a full week to fulfill. To make matters worse, legislators added exemptions to the Open Records Act. This further increased the number of loopholes in the law, which already exceeded 250 exemptions. Nothing speaks louder about the lack of commitment to government transparency than lawmakers’ silence regarding the biggest exemption of all from the Open Records Act: legislators themselves. State legislators aren’t required to respond to open records requests. Until lawmakers allow the sun to shine on their own affairs, Tennesseans will be left in the dark about the actions of government. When it comes to open records, a closed door mentality still prevails in Tennessee. But who could be surprised when the state legislature is leading the charge against open, transparent government? # # #