tntransparency

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

TN Department of Economic and Community Development says it is going transparent

In Advocacy on June 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has announced the launch of its “transparency” website, OpenECD.tn.gov. The department says its website is designed to be a “user-friendly site where the public can easily access public information and documents” pertaining
to ECD grants and incentives. It does not say anything regarding the transparency of its recruiting processes, however.

“Our department wants to provide the public with as much information as possible,” Bill Hagerty,
commissioner, ECD, said. “It is important to Governor Haslam, and to all of us, that we operate as
an open and transparent government. These documents have always been available to the public,
but we wanted to make them more easily accessible to the public, and we have accomplished that
with OpenECD.tn.gov.”

OpenECD.tn.gov will be updated quarterly. The public can sign up to receive email alerts notifying
the recipient when information has been added and/or updated. Visit OpenECD.tn.gov for more
information.

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s is tasked with the job of attracting new corporate investment in Tennessee and work with existing Tennessee
companies to facilitate expansion and economic growth. Website at: tn.gov/ecd

Just how transparent will ECD be moving forward?

Journalist Tracy Simmons at Times-Gazette keeps eye on Bedford County officials

In Advocacy on June 28, 2012 at 12:02 am

Tracy Simmons at Times-Gazette keeps eye on Bedford County officials

Journalist Tracy Simmons, of the Times-Gazette, reported this week, “‘We’re adjourned, thanks,’ said county commissioner J.D. ‘Bo’ Wilson, and without waiting for the traditional motion to dismiss, he and five other members of the County Commission’s finance committee simultaneously gathered their papers Tuesday and left the meeting room at the Bedford County Business Complex. The meeting — which included a review of monthly financial statements, an analysis of property tax collections, county-wide travel expenses and a $61,000 bad debt write off by Bedford County Emergency Medical Services — lasted a total of 26 minutes.”

Citizens have every right to be suspect when elected officials consistently have short sessions, with little to no discussion followed by unanimous decisions.

Find Simmons full report by selecting the link above.

Johnson City journalist using public records to probe FTHRA

In Advocacy on June 24, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Journalist Gary B. Gray, of the Johnson City Press, is using public records requests and solid investigative reporting to probe into legal and ethical questions that surround a $1 million improvement project by the First Tennessee Human Resources Agency (FTHRA). Gray is questioning, among other things, the relationship between FTHRA and the project contractor. According to the report, “The First Tennessee Human Resource Agency is amid work on a major renovation project at 704 Rolling Hills Drive in Johnson City as it relocate its administrative offices there. Tim Jaynes, who serves as FTHRA’s NET Trans (Northeast Tennessee Rural Public Transit) transportation director, also is the contractor listed on two Johnson City building permits as Timothy Jaynes doing business as Jaynes Building Group for two construction projects at the site.” See the Sunday, June 24, edition of the Johnson City Press.

http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/News/article.php?id=100993#ixzz1ykAqid2o

Here comes restaurant deal making, FOI advocates ignore the danger — will officials police themselves?

In Advocacy on June 19, 2012 at 2:19 am

V2 defines the word “deliberate,” in a clear and concise way:

“verb, adjective

Definition: (v.) to consider or discuss; (adj.) to do something intentionally–on purpose

Synonyms: (v.) consider, ponder, cogitate, debate, (adj.) premeditated, calculated, considered, intentional

Antonyms: (adj.) involuntary, impulsive

Tips: Deliberate comes from the Latin word librare, “to weigh.” In its verb form, to deliberate means “to weigh options before coming to a decision.” As an adjective, a deliberate person is someone who weighs the consequences before acting, while a deliberate action is one which has been thought about beforehand.”

Courts have generally opined that when terms are not clearly defined in the law, then the ordinary use of those words or phrases by an average citizen is understood to be the prevailing meaning. Tennessee’s state representatives and senators know the basic definition of the word “deliberate.” Tennessee’s Attorney General knows how to use the word “deliberate.” FOI advocates, local elected officials and average citizens know what they mean when they use the word “deliberate.” However, no one is willing to define the word as it applies to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. In February Tennessee’s Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey asked the state’s newspaper professionals at the Tennessee Press Association Winter Convention to help him define “deliberate.” When the Transparency Project’s Jim Zachary asked Ramsey how he defines the word he said he did not know. Was Ramsey telling the truth? Does he really not know how the word is commonly used? Does Tennessee’s AG know? Do FOI advocates know?

When the AG said last week that local elected officials can get together and “discuss,” the public’s business at a restaurant, just so long as they do not “deliberate,” the public’s business the AG was making a distinction without a difference that simply gives local elected officials way too much wiggle room to deny they are in fact violating the Open Meetings Act.

Now, FOI advocates are not touching the AG’s opinion with a 10 foot pole. Why? All of a sudden are citizens just to trust that local elected officials will police themselves and “discuss,” the public business without crossing the line into “deliberating?”

How close to that line can they get? Exactly at what point does the discussion become a deliberation? With this open door to lunch, breakfast or supper “meetings,” without public notice and without the public’s presence, just how are citizens to keep an eye on public officials?

Even FOI advocates and newspapers are leaving the impression that this opinion by the AG, regarding Ramsey’s home district, somehow is a positive thing because it eases the minds of public officials who were scared to death that someone might possibly perceive they might have been violating the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Shouldn’t they be scared of being perceived as violating the Act?

With this opinion that further confuses the definition of “discussing” and “deliberating,” while opening the door for officials to get together and discuss the public’s business without public notice and without subjecting themselves to public censure, citizens can forget about the whole scandal of “back room deals.” Officials won’t have to make deals in back rooms anymore, they can do it in the front room of the restaurant.

AG’s opinion endangers transparency

In Advocacy on June 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

The Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion out this week is just that, an opinion—and not a very good one. The AG’s comment regarding what constitutes a violation of the state’s sunshine law would essentially put all the foxes in charge of the henhouse. The AG has essentially opined that local elected officials can determine by themselves when they are and are not “deliberating” the public’s business in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The opinion may or may not reflect how the courts would rule in a case where county commissioners would meet over lunch and discuss the public’s business without the public either being notified of the meeting or having the opportunity to attend the meeting. Citizens of the state of Tennessee, the media, and every local official should take note of the fact that this opinion is non-binding. While some may think the opinion is “very clear,” it could not be more unclear. While the state’s open meetings act clearly does not prohibit chance meetings it also clearly does not intend for such chance meetings to open the door for officials to shape policy in the dark.

For coverage of the AG’s opinion see:

http://www.timesnews.net/

Transparency issue may not be transparency issue, AP’s Travis Loller reports

In Advocacy on June 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Travis Loller of the Associated Press, Nashville, has reported this week that government transparency groups including the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government (TCOG), Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Transparency Project have had a rather subdued response to a  court ruling in Rutherford County that could have been construed as setting “higher standards,” for public notices by local governments in Tennessee. Loller reported, “Rutherford County Chancellor Robert Corlew ruled May 29 that county officials violated the state’s Sunshine Law by not providing adequate public notice of the meeting where the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s new building was approved.” For the article that appeared in newspapers and websites throughout the nation, the AP reporter interviewed prominent Knoxville attorney Rick Hollow, TCOG’s Director Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson, Rutherford Neighborhood Association spokesman Steve Schroeder and Tennessee Transparency Project Director Jim Zachary. Flanagan told Loller, “My perspective on it, it was not an open meetings issue.” 

The Transparency Project agrees with Flanagan on that point. In fact, it would appear that the public notice issue was a tool being used by religious zealots opposed to the building of a mosque. Not only is the court’s ruling specific to this case and vague in its application, it does even address the most pertinent issues in the Rutherford County case. This is not a landmark decision that will strengthen Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act or enhance public notice requirements. 

Nevertheless, TCOG, the Tennessee Press Association, the Neighborhood Alliance, Attorney Rick Hollow and the Tennessee Transparency Project are committed to open government advocacy and continue to fight for greater transparency in state and local government. 

This just wasn’t the case to make the case. 

Kingsport Times News keeping an eye on Sunshine violations in Sullivan County

In Advocacy on June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm

The Kingsport Times News in Sullivan County is keeping its eye on elected officials who have skirted or perhaps just plain violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. KTN’s John Osborne reported this week, “A group of Sullivan County commissioners who violated state law last month by throwing the public out of a public meeting has revisited the issue to make sure their actions can’t be challenged. Earlier this week, County Attorney Dan Street led members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Executive Committee through the steps he said were needed to make sure the committee’s violation of Tennessee’s “Sunshine Law” would not jeopardize the legal settlement the group discussed behind closed doors last month. Street was not included in that closed meeting. The Executive Committee’s regular monthly meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. May 1. But at that time, committee members said the group needed first to go into “executive session” and asked all non-members to leave the room. They went on to meet with the county’s risk management officer and an insurance claims adjuster — then let the public back in before quickly voting simply to approve the settlement as discussed in private. No details, such as what claim or how much money was involved, were made public. When members gathered Tuesday for the committee’s June meeting, Street told them they needed a do-over because last month’s vote could be challenged on the basis it violated the Sunshine Law. Some members argued it did not. Street told them any local governmental body may only exclude the public to discuss legal strategy with the body’s attorney — and that once that discussion ended, any subsequent action had to be taken in public, and include at least some basic details describing the action. Street also explained that the exclusion isn’t spelled out in state law, per se, but is recognized only because of a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that aimed to preserve attorney-client privilege. Without an attorney present during last month’s closed-door “executive session,” Street said, the committee clearly violated the Sunshine Law,” (Kingsport Times News, June 6, 2012).

Local governments would benefit from advisors like Street who seek compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act, rather than lawyers who seem more bent on guiding them in how to get around the Act.

Tennessee gets C- for campaign financing transparency

In Advocacy on June 6, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Tennessee gets C- for campaign financing transparency

Big money fuels state politics, often without transparency or oversight

 

 

Chris Koniar and State Integrity Investigation reports the state of Tennessee got a C- in its ranking of all 50 states regarding political financing and the susceptibility to corruption.  Tennessee received a score of 73%, or a C-—that’s 19th among the states. The State Integrity Investigation report said, “results in the political financing category should have a chilling effect on voters who want an honest process behind campaign funding in their state. Only one state got an ‘A’ grade, and six got a ‘B-‘ or better; at the bottom of the category rankings, 21 states got a grade of ‘D-‘ or worse.” The entire report along with Tennessee scores can be found at: 

http://www.stateintegrity.org/state_government_campaign_finance_rankings

 

     

Commissioners accused of texting during meeting

In Advocacy on June 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm

East Tennessee journalist Carolynn Elder writes, “Following the May meeting of the Hawkins County Commission, the newspaper received a call from an elected official asking, “Are you aware of the commissioners who are texting during commission meetings?” That is a question that does not require an answer from a newspaper dedicated to openness in government. The caller went on to say that it has been going on for some time and he had been anticipating newspaper coverage of the issue. In addition to the impropriety of the action and possible breech of ethics associated with such actions, legal issues arise from the inability to archive the communication surrounding a public meeting, the very essence of the open meetings laws. The state of Tennessee has said, in essence, the public owns all records of government meetings and must have access to them at request. No longer are clandestine phone calls and private meetings the only ways to hide the public’s business. Now emails, social media and texting can be hidden from those the officials are elected to represent. Tennessee Code Annotated states, “No chance meeting, informal assemblages, or electronic communication shall be used to decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this part.”(T.C.A. 8-44-102 (iii) C). States in which legal action has taken place include Florida, Michigan and New Jersey. Texting during meetings has been banned in countless municipalities across the nation. 

A complete report will published Wednesday at http://www.hawkinstoday.com

 

Too many Open Records exemptions, TCOG points out

In Advocacy on June 4, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Kent Flanagan, Director of the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government (TCOG), reminded TCOG followers on Twitter today the Tennessee General Assembly has added more than 350 exemptions to the state’s open records law, over the years. Those exemptions are scattered throughout Tennessee Code Annotated are not codified in any one place in the Tennessee Public Records Act. Flanagan highlights a National Freedom of Information Coalition article that states, “Every state theoretically gives citizens the right to access government information. But an analysis of public records policies by the State Integrity Investigation reveals that, in state after state, the laws are riddled with exemptions and loopholes that often impede the public’s right to know rather than improve upon it.” If Tennessee has just 350 exemptions, that is most likely 349 too many. Regardless of the exemptions, citizens should always asume that all records in public offices are open records that belong to the citizens of Tennessee and are available for public inspection. The Tennessee Office of Open Records has opined that not only is the presumption that a record is open, but the burden of proof is not on records requestors to prove the records they are seeking are public records, but rather, the burden rests with a records custodian who is denying a public records request to prove that a specific document is exempt from the Act.