tntransparency

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Share your experiences

In Advocacy on April 13, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Tennessee Transparency Project is designed to empower citizens by helping to create greater access to local government through education and advocacy. Share your open meetings / public records experiences by “Commenting” below or send a narrative to tntransparency@gmail.com. Others will benefit from reading your submissions. 

 

Small Public Records victory, “It’s pretty simple”

In Advocacy on April 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm

It may have been just a small skirmish in the war over government transparency, but any battle won is an important step in protecting citizens’ right to access. AP’s Erik Schelzig reported this week that the governor’s initiative to close records and hide the identities of company’s applying for Tennessee grants was withdrawn after being bogged down in committee. Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development had suggested hiding company information, including the names of industries seeking economic development grants, would incubate economic development across the state. In this case, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey fell on the side of transparency, quoted in the AP piece saying, “Some will argue that maybe ownership shouldn’t be divulged, that they don’t want their names divulged … Well, then don’t ask for a grant. It’s pretty simple.” It should be noted that state law already protects proprietary information  of private companies.  SB2207 and HB2344 were withdrawn. Citizens will continue to have the right to know what companies may be seeking to locate or expand in their communities. We agree with Ramsey, in this case, “it’s pretty simple.” 

 

The Ramsey defense: “We’d never get anything done”

In Advocacy on April 11, 2012 at 7:36 pm

When members of the Tennessee Press Association asked Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey previously at this year’s TPA Winter Convention why the Tennessee General Assembly is not subject to the same Open Meetings Act that local officials are required to adhere to, Ramsey’s response was, “We’d never get anything done.” After Governor Bill Haslam blasted the media last week for its coverage of “silly” legislation that makes its way through the House and Senate, rather than reprimanding lawmakers themselves for wasting time on the legislative calendar, you have to wonder if there are not other reasons the General Assembly can’t seem to get “anything done.” Discussing the people’s business over dinner, like Ramsey suggested at the TPA convention, does not seem to be expediting the legislative process one little bit. In fact,  it is the very kind of good old boy politics that breeds distrust among the electorate. If legislators would spend more time in session legislating and less time with honoring resolutions, and baggy pants-type bills, then the people’s business, all the people’s business, could be conducted in open public meetings and not “over the dinner table.” State officials should be held to the same Open Meetings standards that local officials are held to rather than local officials trying to weaken open meetings legislation to be more like the General Assembly.

Consent agenda can be hidden agenda

In Advocacy on April 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Consent agendas are not illegal. However, a consent agenda can be used as a tool to retard public discussion of public policy or unpopular spending. In a demonstration that he no longer wants financial items buried on a consent agenda and not openly discussed in public meetings, a Northeast Tennessee Board of Education Chairman had all expenditures that had been included on the BOE’s consent agenda removed and voted on separately last week. A consent agenda is simply a bundle of items voted on, without discussion, as a package. The original intent of the consent agenda was to facilitate meetings by bundling the non-controversial, routine matters that amount to little more than housekeeping measures for the elected body. However a review of items can often reveal expenditures and even changes to public policy, technically voted on in public and recorded in the official meeting minutes, but never discussed. The agendas beg watching and are public records.

Citizens should watch legal fees in local budgets

In Advocacy on April 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm

A NET News Service report by Gary B. Gray this week highlights escalating legal fees paid out by local governments in Northeast Tennessee. The report indicates Johnson City pays a staff attorney a $63,126 salary, while also paying out $55,334 to a separate law firm last year. The report also includes figures from Washington County totaling $285,688 to one attorney in legal fees last year. Gray wrote that in Elizabethton the city pays out about $36,000 in hourly rates in addition to a $16,000 retainer fee for legal services. Unicoi County pays out $1,500 each month in retainer fees, the report indicated. As cities, counties and boards of education work on 2012-13 budgets, citizens and local media should be making public records requests now for the current year’s budget, along with budget worksheets that are being submitted from department heads back to local government. Citizens interested in local government spending have full access to the budget documents and might have an interest in particular line items including (1) legal fees; (2) legal services; (3) contracted services; (4) consulting; (5) other services; (6) miscellaneous; and (7) other. The monies dolled out are taxpayer dollars and citizens have every right to access budgets to know how the funds are allocated. All local budget workshops and hearings are open, public meetings and public notice must be given in advance of those meetings.

INTERMEDIARIES VIOLATE OPEN MEETINGS ACT

In Advocacy on April 4, 2012 at 3:18 pm

It is a common practice among local boards of education, along with county and city governments, for a director of schools, county mayor or city recorder to place telephone calls to different members of the board or commission, polling their views or likely votes on a particular piece of legislation, sharing information between board members and in essence “deliberating,” toward decisions through the intermediary. Citizens and local media should challenge the practice. Tennessee’s Counsel for Open Records Elisha Hodge, JD, has offered this opinion: “It is the opinion of this office that if an intermediary is being used to communicate the opinion of one school board member to another and decisions are being made in that manner, the members are deliberating and unless the public has received adequate notice that this process is going to take place and the public has the right to be present , the open meetings act is being violated” (letter to H.C. Board of Education, Jan. 18, 2012).

BULLETIN: The Hawkins County BOE reversed its practice, announcing this week it will no longer conduct Executive Committee meetings in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, as the result of an opinion received from the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel and the advocacy of the Tennessee Transparency Project. The legal opinion, case law and subsequent action should have implications throughout the state. Details to follow.

Strength in Numbers

In Advocacy on April 4, 2012 at 2:18 am

Welcome to the Tennessee Transparency Project. As individuals it is easy to feel disenfranchised and to believe that the very people elected to represent us in fact assault the rights of the individual. Among our most important civil liberties is the fundamental First Amendement right of free speech and among our most important rights to protect basic liberties are the rights of access to our government. The governing may not always be inclined to listen to the governed, leaving the individual feeling powerless to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Political parties, sadly, become a part of the government apparatus itself and fail to champion individual rights in any real and meaningful ways. The only way to shift the balance of powers away from the governing and back to the governed is by sheer numbers. The Project is designed to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens by advocating for openness and transparency in local government while creating a platform for commentary, an open and free exchange of ideas and a powerful citizens lobby for government accountability. The Project does not belong to any group or individual. As a citizen you are encouraged to take “ownership” of the project and work hand in hand with citizens across the state, working together to incubate greater transparency in local governments.