tntransparency

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Watchdog journalism brings down corrupt judge

In Advocacy on May 31, 2012 at 9:58 pm

www.hawkinstoday.com

NASHVILLE – Former Hawkins County General Sessions Court Jay Taylor has been indicted on more than 40 criminal theft charges. After months of reports in Hawkins Today, a criminal investigation launched by District Attorney Berkeley Bell, a probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the appointment of a special criminal investigator, interviews with numerous local officials and alleged victims, a very public search of his former law office, requests from the public defender and the attorney general’s office that he step down off the bench, the former Hawkins County General Sessions Court Judge now faces serious criminal charges.  The TBI and the AG’s office investigated the case since late last year and now Taylor has been indicted by the Davidson County Grand Jury on 41 counts of theft.

Watchdog still guarding Maury County citizens

In Advocacy on May 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm

The Daily Herald in Columbia continues championing the need for greater government transparency and accountability, while local elected officials continue to thumb their noses at citizens who want to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent. The Daily Herald has not given up on its call for a county audit committee that will fully review state comptroller audits of county government in open public meetings. In yet another strong editorial, the Daily Herald wrote, “Redundancy. That’s the buzz word some Maury County commissioners hit upon last week to justify once again blocking creation of an audit committee. The panel, made up at least partly of citizen volunteers, would have reviewed annual state audit findings and developed plans for their correction. The argument strikes us as bizarre, because the problems in our county government that led to the need for an audit committee have been, well, redundant. Even the state’s recommendation that the county create a panel to address those problems has been redundant. And yet, Commissioner Mike Singleton and others apparently opposed the measure because they feared it would unnecessarily boost bureaucracy.” Commissioner Singleton’s argumentation is amusing at best and while it could be called a “clever” dodging of the real issue at hand, calling it clever would be giving him way too much credit. Since when is government concerned about bureaucracy, anyway? The fact is, if local government were already dealing with fiscal management irregularities, then there would be no call for an audit committee. What does the Daily Herald stand to gain from their editorial stance? What is the newspaper’s agenda? Clearly, the Daily Herald’s interests are the best interests of the citizens of Maury County. A full disclosure and full review of these public records in open public meetings would most obviously be in the best interest of taxpayers and citizens.

Practicing what she preaches — editor displays prime example of transparency no matter how embarrassing

In Advocacy on May 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Largely public figures are held to a different standard than the public at-large and that is especially true if they are elected officials. Sometimes public records can disclose facts, even embarrassing facts, regarding public officials that they would rather not see in print. Newspapers often report those facts. If an ordinary private citizen, for example, is arrested for DUI, it would make the local newspaper’s “Arrest Reports,” but not likely result in a front page article. However, if the mayor was arrested for DUI on Main Street, that mostly likely would end up on page one above the fold. The newspaper is within its rights to print the material facts that are all a part of an open public record. Largely newspaper professional are not held to the standard of a public figure. They may be celebrities in their own minds, but most likely not to anyone else in the community. However, an incident involving an East Tennessee editor at a community newspaper demonstrated an immense amount of integrity and transparency. Editor Terri Likens recently told Roan County News readers, “I regularly talk to people who have ended up on the wrong side of the law and want to keep the incident out of the newspaper. My answer is invariably a polite no-can-do. If the situation is a matter of our usual public record, it all goes in the paper. We make no exceptions. Employees of this newspaper are held to the same standard  — including me. Which brings me to the point of this column. On Saturday night, in a neighboring county, I was charged with DUI. I wanted you to hear it from me first.” Now that is transparency — and integrity. 

Daily Open Government emails available for free

In Advocacy on May 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm

The Tennessee Transparency Project generates daily email updates that include Open Government news and commentary focusing on challenges being faced in communities throughout Tennessee, issues related to the state’s Sunshine Laws, free editorials for publication and updates regarding public records and open meetings, along with resources to assist journalists, citizens and public officials concerned about creating greater transparency in local government. 

To receive daily email updates go the right hand column and select “Follow Blog via Email.” 

Are news laws needed just to require lawmakers to follow the law? Press Association survey says…

In Advocacy on May 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Tennessee laws requiring transparency in local government are not that bad when compared to other states. The hypocrisy of the General Assembly effectively exempting itself from the state’s Open Meetings Act, however, is another story. With respect to laws applying to local government, the single most important change to protect the rights of citizens of Tennessee would be enacting some real penalties for violations of the Act. For example, this year the Georgia General Assembly approved $1,500 to $2,500 fines for public officials who violate their state’s Open Meetings Act or Open Records Act. With respect to state government, the clearest path to protecting citizens by providing unfettered access to their own government in Tennessee would be holding state officials to the same standards required of county commissioners, city aldermen and local school board members. Recently the Nevada Press Association (NPA) took a proactive approach to lobbying for improved government transparency by conducting a poll of candidates for the state legislature, gauging their views on openness in state government.    According to “Carson Now,” the NPA survey was intended to give the voters a chance to find out where candidates stand on transparency issues including public records, open meetings and campaign finance reforms. Lawmakers may not care all that much about transparency, but citizens do, and voters have every right to know where would-be public servants stand on issues that matter to them. The great incongruity, whether in Nevada or Tennessee, is how any elected official can justify a lack of complete transparency in local and state government while claiming to be a public servant. Government does not belong to the elected. It belongs to those doing the electing and to all citizens of a city, county or state. The “Carson Now,” article stated, “Sixty state lawmakers and legislative candidates who responded to the survey largely favor new laws requiring the Legislature to follow the Open Meeting Law.” Now isn’t that something? Candidates and lawmakers favor new laws requiring the legislature to follow the law.

Just what are county commissioners trying to hide?

In Advocacy on May 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Christine Seiber of the Columbia Daily Herald reported this week the Maury County Commission has rebuffed the state’s call for a county audit committee, a blow to local government transparency. Seiber reported, “Maury County commissioners voted down establishing an audit committee, a move that state auditors have recommended local officials take in their past two audits of the county.” One of the county’s commissioners, Debbie Turner, told Seiber, “We are responsible to the taxpayers of Maury County,” she said. “We’re responsible to be ethical, and I think having an audit committee would be another way to ensure being ethical.” The Tennessee Transparency Project could not agree more. The Daily Herald is continuing its work as a public watchdog, keeping an eye on local government. Previously this year, the newspaper’s Kelsey Cochran reported that some Spring Hill officials had questioned whether adequate notice was given to them and the public for a special called board meeting at which a vote was taken on a controversial road purchase. Cochran, a strong reporter who takes the public watchdog role seriously, did an excellent job explaining the law and demonstrating that Tennessee’s open meetings act is designed to protect the public and not merely a measure to assit the media.

Seiber’s and Cochran’s work can be found at: http://www.columbiadailyherald.com/

 

TN Press Association Policy Director Frank Gibson urges newspapers to step up Public Notice education

In Advocacy on May 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm

The Tennessee Press Association’s Public Policy Director is encouraging newspapers across the state to be diligent in educating both the public at large and elected officials about the importance of continuing to publish public notices in local newspapers rather than government-owned, government-maintained, government-controlled websites. TPA’s Frank Gibson reminded newspaper professionals, “Since more than two-thirds of Tennessee newspapers also publish notices on their websites, citizens are still more likely to see notices published and posted by local newspapers than anywhere else. And, 45% of Tennessee households still buy newspapers. More than half of households in 60 of the state’s 95 counties subscribed to or bought newspapers last year. To be fair and honest, only 29% of households in a 2011 statewide Connected Tennessee survey reported ‘interacting with local government websites or elected officials.'” Gibson has consistently expressed his concerns about the dangers from a group of state lawmakers who have sought to eliminate requirements for public notices to be placed in newspapers for the purpose of informing the public, hoping to opt instead to have those notices placed on government websites, ostensibly to save local governments money. However, the policy director noted, ” that a “Fiscal Review Committee report found that 37% of city and county governments do not have websites. The committee estimated it would cost $7.5 million ‘one-time’ and $3.5 million ‘recurring’ (annually) for those 167 local governments to develop and maintain their own websites. Those costs are never factored in when government officials advocate change. Nor is the value of having notices distributed by independent and verifiable sources. The importance of ‘independent’ is self-evident, but verifiable has two advantages.Not only can a newspaper prove that a notice ran when it was supposed to and in the form requested, but many newspapers have audited readership and the others must provide the U. S. Postal Service sworn statements of circulation. Proponents of change will argue that newspaper readership is dwindling, but they don’t acknowledge that those readers have typically migrated to the newspaper’s website. The latest research shows that 70% of adults regularly read newspapers OR newspaper websites.”

More editorial content available for free

In Advocacy on May 18, 2012 at 4:12 pm

The Tennessee Transparency Project continues to expand its offerings of free editorials and columns. Editorial content currently available free of charge includes:

• GOVERNMENT BELONGS TO THE GOVERNED

• OPEN GOVERNMENT — RULE OF LAW — ALWAYS ASSUME IT’S OPEN / PUBLIC

• WORKS IN PROGRESS, EVEN BUDGET DRAFTS, ARE PUBLIC RECORDS IN TENNESSEE

• UNDER ATTACK: SUNSHINE LAW BATTLES NOT OVER

* NOT-SO-PUBLIC NOTICES; NOT IN PUBLIC’S INTEREST

• TRANSPARENCY IS NOT REPUBLICAN, NOT DEMOCRAT 

• QUICK BUDGETS SHOULD RAISE QUESTIONS

 All the editorials,under the tab “EDITORIALS FOR PUBLICATION,” along with any content found at tntransparency.com is available for free. Publishers can use the content in part or whole and with or without attribution. The only agenda of the Tennessee Transparency Project is to hold public officials accountable while advocating for openness in government.

Even CTAS and MTAS warn against local officials discussing public business during chance meetings

In Advocacy on May 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Too many local officials have the mistaken impression that the University of Tennessee’s CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) and MTAS (Municipal Technical Assistance Service) are the be-all, end-all, do-all, settle-all absolute final say in what is legal, right or best-advised for county and city government. In fact, CTAS and MTAS are only an “assistance” service and have no authority. Further, CTAS and MTAS often do not get it right when it comes to the advice they hand out. For an example, local governments are currently having to re-do government debt management plans because the plans they ratified the past few months were based on templates that were handed them by UT’s technical advisory services and then after being passed by local governments were rejected by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. When it comes to government Ethics Policy, most local governments have adopted ethics policies mirroring other templates handed them from CTAS and MTAS. Those documents should be viewed only as very general guidelines. Open Meetings and Public Records training and advice offered by CTAS and MTAS is far from expert and far from being the best that local officials can access. The Tennessee Office of Open Records in the state’s Comptroller’s Office actually is tasked with the responsibility of providing expert training and is equipped with professional training materials and expert legal staff to provide the kind of training that can keep local officials in compliance with the Acts. Despite the fact that CTAS and MTAS all too often provide inadequate materials or provide advice that seems more slanted to favor “government” than it does citizens, even MTAS warns officials against the all too common practice of using “chance” meetings to discuss public business, “The statute states that a chance meeting between two or more members of a public body should not be considered a public meeting subject to the terms of the act. However, the same statute goes on to warn that chance meetings shall not be used to deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit of the act (T.C.A. § 8-44-102) (CTAS training materials).

Senatorial candidate Jackson committed to transparency in government

In Advocacy on May 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm

The leading candidate for Tennessee’s 8th Senatorial District pledged her commitment to openness and transparency in government to a group of East Tennessee conservatives. Cynthia Bundren Jackson (R), who is seeking the 8th District seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Faulk after his freshman term, told the Tennessee Transparency Project and the partisan crowd she understands that government belongs to citizens and should always be open and accessible. Jackson is the former First Vice-president of the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women, member of the NRA and has been actively involved in the local and statewide Republican Party for several years. Jackson, who was in attendance at a presentation of the Tennessee Transparency Project, said once elected she will not forget her firm commitment to government transparency.