Column: Allow no obstacles for public access
Tuesday, February 2, 2016 10:17 am
By DEBORAH FISHER
Nearly 40 new bills have been filed in the Legislature in recent weeks that would make changes to citizen access to government records or meetings.
As lawmakers head deep into the session, with literally thousands of bills to consider, they would do well to remember a message sent last summer through a series of public hearings and surveys: Citizens do not want more obstacles to finding out what their government is doing.
This view is documented in a new report by Open Records Counsel Ann Butterworth that was developed in response to a legislative proposal last year to charge citizens new fees to inspect public records.
The public response exceeded what was expected, drawing so many to the hearings that citizens lined the walls after all the chairs were filled.
"The public's participation and comments in the surveys and hearings indicate an overwhelming concern, by citizens and government representatives, to maintain, and a desire to increase, transparency of government," Butterworth writes in her introduction. She then outlines the opposition she received in response to the fees proposal.
"Keep the records free and easily accessible, our liberty and freedom depend on it," says one citizen quoted in the report. That echoed the tenor of all of the hearings where many gave patriotic and practical speeches about the need for citizen oversight of their government.
The state representative who sponsored the fees bill, Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, has withdrawn it, but filed another bill that indicates a continued interest in working on the public records law.
Other bills introduced this month raise questions. One would create a new exemption allowing the government to keep secret the names of vendors that provide services and goods used to protect government property. Some roll back the requirements on how government gives notice of hearings and meetings.
Others affecting public records or open meetings law were filed as "caption bills," meaning the language in the filed bill is likely to change and a different proposal could emerge later in the session. This also means the public doesn't know what the bill is about yet.
Still, some of the bills filed this month appear to expand access to government information, such as a bill by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would require a publicly available report on findings of any TBI investigation into an officer-involved shooting. Two bills would require more public participation in meetings at University of Tennessee.
A significant proposal deals with an issue that's been debated across the country - the use of police body cameras. That bill, with backing from the ACLU of Tennessee, seeks to balance citizen privacy with the need for police accountability by governing how police use body cameras and guaranteeing public access to certain video.
The summer study to gather citizen input on government transparency was the most far-reaching in years. It gathered 952 comments from citizens and government officials.
In addition to documenting opposition to fees, the hearings gave voice to many who have been frustrated over access to government information and the difficulty of overcoming roadblocks.
"Instead of creating a new barrier with a fee, we need to be looking for ways to remove existing bureaucratic obstacles," said public interest advocate Helen Sharp of Chattanooga. "We all need to work at creating a climate where members of the public and government officials realize we are on the same team and wear the same color jersey."
Unfortunately, just a few months after the hearings in late December, a piece of bad news for open government emerged when an audit revealed that the Open Records Counsel in the past year has accumulated a backlog of 603 inquiries that have gone unanswered. No one was told about it. The Comptroller's Office, which houses the open records office, is now trying to repair the damage and seeking funding for additional staff.
But additional staff won't help much if lawmakers and others in power gradually encroach upon the freedom of citizens to know the workings of their own government by creating more restrictions.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit organization that tracks access to government records and meetings, and threats to it, at www.tcog.info.