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Posts Tagged ‘open government’

David E. Hudson Award for Open Government attributed to Transparency Project

In Advocacy on June 15, 2014 at 1:05 am

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Co-director James Zachary was on hand with Jim for both the David E. Hudson Award presentation and the Freedom of Information Award at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. 

JEKYLL ISLAND — Transparency Project of Georgia Director Jim Zachary accepted the David E. Hudson Award for Open Government at an awards ceremony at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel.

The coveted David Hudson Award was created to honor journalists who work to keep government meetings and records open to the public and Zachary said he believe the work done by the Transparency Project of Georgia was a key part of being named the recipient because of the ways the grass roots project has empowered citizens.

“This was a team effort,” the honoree said.

Kelsey Cochran, James Zachary and I do what we do because of the values we share and our commitment to ordinary men and women who often feel as though government can do whatever it wants to do and that no one is willing to hold it accountable. We don’t accept that and are driven by the belief that government belongs to the governed and not the governing,” Jim Zachary said.

The award is named for one of the nation’s leading First Amendment and Open Government attorneys, David Hudson.

Hudson was on-hand for the presentation and called Zachary a “warrior for open government.”

“I have had a very fortunate career and been honored with many awards, but this one means more than words can express because of the man whose name it bears.” Zachary said during his acceptance speech. “David Hudson’s work reminds us why we do what we do. It is not about the awards. It is about each of our communities and the people who read our newspapers.”

Zachary encouraged the newspaper executives at the awards presentation to support and empower reporters and editors who are true watchdogs and hold government accountable. “Our work should be underpinned with the core principle that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing,” he said.

For the second year in a row, one of the newspapers where Zachary serves as editor, The Henry Daily Herald,  has received the coveted Freedom of Information Award.

The FOI Award is considered one of the state’s top honors for newspapers and recognizes journalists who champion government transparency.

Robert Williams, president of the National Newspaper Association, was honored at the beginning of the awards ceremony and encouraged Zachary to, “Keep doing what you do and keep inspiring others to do it.”

Zachary said, “I have been blessed throughout my career and am humbled by the awards I have received both in Tennessee and Georgia, but what drives me and inspires the work is the plight of ordinary men and women who struggle to pay their property taxes each year, are concerned about quality education for their children or believe they are powerless to fight city hall.”

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Government retreats show disregard for citizens

In Advocacy on January 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm

It is that time of year again. It is retreat season.

Local governments are planning their out-of-town all-day or two-day retreats where they get together and discuss their respective legislative agendas for the rest of the year.

To be fair, they give public notice and the public is welcome to attend.

We should also say the ordinary practice of city and county government of holding out-of-town retreats is not illegal.

Despite those facts, it is very poor public service to discuss the people’s business in another city.

Taking the people’s business away from the people, while not a violation of the law, is a violation of the public trust.

When city councils, county commissions and boards of education go to another city or county for a retreat, they know citizens will not follow them.

Most of them likely do not even consider the implications of the practice or think about the message it sends to the people they are chosen to represent.

Citizens not only have the right to know what decisions their elected officials reach, they have every right to know how they reach those decisions.

Deliberations of the public’s business should always be before the public.

The fact they send out notices of those out-of-town gatherings does not mean they are really accessible.

Whether they admit it or not, the retreats often give them the opportunity to be more candid on things they would not want to discuss in public.

The only thing they really seem to be retreating from is the very public they are elected to represent.

Those elected to office will adamantly defend their standing practice of annual retreats.

That defense will most likely center around the argument that state law allows it.

That begs the question — should you do everything or anything you can do or want to do, just because it is not illegal?

Those holding office need to ask themselves why they ran for office, why they chose public service and why they feel the need to go to a nice out-of-town conference center to do what they could do at home, in their own city.

A true public servant seeks public office to serve the public.

The public is best served by openness, accessibility, transparency and amenability.

Local government keeps moving farther and farther away from the people.

The entire mindset of our elected officials needs to change.

The more open you are, the more accessible you are, the more public trust you will build.

The more you go off on retreats, hide behind the closed doors of an executive session or even whisper to one another during meetings, the more people will be suspicious and the less they will trust you with their business.

It should also not go without saying, these out-of-town retreats are on the public dime.

It should also be noted that an out-of-town business is benefiting from the amount of money spent on the retreat, rather than a local one. 

Citizens should show up at regular city, county and board of education meetings and demand more openness.

Then, during elections vote for officials who pledge openness. But, then again, they all pledge and promise openness, don’t they?

— Editor Jim Zachary

Transparency questioned in East Tennessee town

In Advocacy on October 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm

East Tennessee journalist Carolynn Elder, Hawkins Today, is keeping an eye on what seems to be a lack of government transparency in the town of Rogersville. 

In a recent report Elder asked, “Did Rogersville City Council meeting violate sunshine laws?”

The newspaper reported on an executive session convened by the Rogersville Board of Mayor and Aldermen at the behest of the city attorney. A fired police officer had asked the BMA for the opportunity to address the city in the aftermath of his firing. However, before city officials allowed him to speak, the city attorney met with the mayor and council in a private, back room session, even though no lawsuit has been field in the matter. Subsequently, the BMA met in open session heard from the fired officer, James Hammonds, then quickly heard a motion and second followed by a quick unanimous vote to uphold his ouster with virtually no discussion, expect for comments from the attorney himself. 

Elder reporter, “When Director of the Tennessee Transparency Project Jim Zachary was asked to clarify open meetings regulations, he said, ‘Several questions are raised by this situation…The State of Tennessee allows for executive sessions, but only for very specific reasons. A city council may consult with its attorney in private but only to receive information on real or pending litigation. They cannot use the closed-door session to deliberate toward a decision or to discuss what they will do when reconvening in the open public session.'”

Elder wrote, “Zachary said citizens have the right to ask three questions about the meeting. Was this session to discuss real or pending litigation? Was this session limited in scope to the council receiving information from its attorney regarding that litigation? Did the council members deliberate regarding the city’s position on the issues to be discussed in the open session?”

The Tennessee Transparency Project told Elder that if the city council discussed the city’s grievance policy, procedures for hearing the complaint in the open session, or anything not related to legal strategy or information related to the real or pending lawsuit, the so-called executive session was out of bounds, adding, “If the city attorney advised the city council on how to react to Hammonds’ statement, or told them the proper motion and vote after the statement, the meeting would seem to be improper. The State of Tennessee not only requires all votes to be taken in open public meetings, it requires all deliberations to be made in public.”

TTP Director Zachary advised, “While there may be questions regarding the public notice requirement for such a session, because meeting with an attorney may not be considered a “meeting” by the State, in general local officials are best advised to first convene a regular or “special called meeting,” then to recess into executive session and then to reconvene into open public session for deliberation and decision-making.”

In the Hawkins Today article, Elder observed, “The procedure recommended by Zachary is the procedure followed by County Attorney Jim Phillips at Hawkins County Commission and Hawkins County Board of Education meetings.”

Zachary told Elder, “Any attempt by local officials to circumvent the State’s open meeting act should be considered a violation of the act. Hopefully, members of the city council will come forward to disclose to the public any action that may have taken place in executive session that was outside the very limited reasons for a closed-door meeting allowed by the General Assembly.”

NATIONAL NEWSPAPER WEEK: Advocating for transparency is putting community first

In Advocacy on October 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

As newspaper executives struggle over whether the news should be digital first, tablet first, SMS first or print first, readers know exactly what they want their local newspaper to be — community first.

Reading a newspaper is not like reading a novel, a magazine, a history book, poetry, prose or any other type of literature.

Newspapers are not about what has happened in the past, what is happening someplace else, or what happens in an author’s imagination.

Newspapers are about us.

Newspapers are about our child’s first school field trip, a Friday night high school football game, a livestock show hosted by the agriculture extension office or an increase in our property tax rate. At least those are the things that a relevant newspaper is all about whether your read it online or sit down with a morning cup of coffee and enjoy the traditional printed edition the way it was meant to be.

Newspapers — viable, strong, growing, thriving newspapers — are all about the communities they serve.

Sure, in the interest of transparency, some newspapers have struggled in recent years.

Many more are growing.

So what’s the difference between the newspapers on a downward spiral and those that are adding days of publication, adding staff and printing more sections and pages than ever before?

Really, it is not all that complicated.

In fact, it is rather basic.

The difference is community.

Newspapers, like any business or individual, will always struggle when they stop doing the things they do well.

In a quest to be more modern, to be more business savvy, or to use more silicon, we cannot lose sight of the single most important characteristic and historically important aspect of a quality newspaper — you, our readers.

We hold public officials accountable, advocate for openness in government and champion the cause of ordinary citizens because we are committed to the neighborhoods, cities, county and coverage area we serve.

Watered-down editorial pages, articles that read like a public relations campaign for government and page after page of wire service content will never resonate in the same way as celebrating our own community and standing up for its citizens.

Newspapers hold public officials accountable because it makes the place we call home a better place to live and because it is the right thing to do.

Newspapers do not make the news.

They report it — all of it.

Of course, a newspaper wants to celebrate its community.

We share the great human interest stories, provide a slice of life in the county, highlight worthwhile causes, focus on interesting people and most especially on our young people with every edition.

With intelligent, thoughtful, compelling commentary, coupled with clearly written, straightforward news reporting, we work every day to tell the truth and in that way we remain a vital and positive part of the community.

The newspaper belongs to the community.

That is why we work every day to give citizens a voice, to empower them and tell their stories.

That is why we hold government accountable, because at our very core we believe that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing.

That is why we embrace the newspaper’s role as the Fourth Estate.

According to historian Thomas Carlyle, Irish statesman and author Edmund Burke (1729-1797) said, “there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all,” (Heroes and Hero Worship in History, 1841).

Though in many places reporters have reduced themselves to simply being a mouthpiece for local government, reporting what officials want them to report and hiding what they don’t, a community and a democracy are best served when the newspaper provides a forum for checks and balances as the Fourth Estate of government.

Great newspapers, relevant newspapers that are embraced by their communities and consequently profitable and growing newspapers have not forgotten that role and have not abandoned these values.

We are not the enemy of government. Rather, we are the champions of citizens — of our community.

We know if newspapers do not stand up for citizens and protect the rights of free speech and the rights of access to government, then no one will.

We work each day to build a culture and incubate an environment where those elected feel accountable to those who elected them.

Newspapers should be the most powerful advocate citizens have and should be their open forum for a redress of grievances.

Any newspaper that represents the interests of the governing, more than the interests of the governed, is not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages.

Newspapers — the good ones — still make a difference in the communities they serve.

Burke also said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

As newspaper reporters, editors and staff, we have the daily, or weekly, opportunity to do something — something that matters to our community and in all of our lives.

As long as people still read, still care about their quality of life, still love the place they call home and still pay taxes, newspapers that retain their role as the Fourth Estate and that celebrate the lives of ordinary people will remain relevant, will matter to the community and be a part of your every day life.

Tennessee Transparency Project Director Jim Zachary was one of six editorial writers across the nation to prepare editorial columns for newspapers throughout the United States to be published as part of National Newspaper Week. Zachary is an award-winning newspaper veteran who has championed government transparency. He is the editor of the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald in metro Atlanta. 

Tennessee Public Notice issue — an important government transparency issue

In Advocacy on January 22, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Any battle to remove required government public notices from newspapers is an assault on government transparency. Compromising government transparency is a full-out assault on the citizens of Tennessee.

Government belongs to the governed, not the governing.

The actions of government should always be out in the open.

Whether it is the passage of a city or county budget, a change in zoning ordinances or a permit application for a mining operation near a residential neighborhood, citizens have every right to know what government is up to or is about to do.

Who holds government in check? Who protects the interests of citizens?

If our 237-year experiment has taught us anything about democracy, it has taught us government cannot be trusted to police itself. Public notices in newspapers are one of the ways that citizens can keep an eye on their local government.

Newspapers have a long and important legacy of helping citizens keep an eye on government. Newspapers are the place where citizens in communities throughout Tennessee look to find out not only what government is up to, but they also depend on local newspapers to publish bankruptcy information important to creditors and to property owners, foreclosures and even divorces and adoptions. Newspapers serve as a historical record and researchers now, and years in the future, will look through newspaper archives to preserve those histories. Many of those records are found in printed public notices.

The Internet has not replaced newspapers as the leading source of information for and about communities and it will not at anytime in the near future.

Taking required public notices out of newspapers and merely posting them on government controlled websites takes those records out of the hands of the public at-large. A large government website of public notices throughout the state will bury important information about a community and effectively conceal the actions of local governments.

Even if a large government website is searchable, a citizen would have to know exactly what they are searching for in order to be driven to the website and then they would have to know exactly what keywords to use in order to find the information they are looking for. That kind of public notice model is not in the public’s best interest.

However, with each edition, citizens buy their community newspapers to find out everything that is going on in their community. While they are reading the news from the previous evening’s county commission meeting, or checking to see what is on the school lunch menu, or looking through the obituaries, or scanning the help wanted ads, there they will be alerted about a permit application for a new landfill or a hike in the property tax rate. Putting the information in the location where citizens are accustomed to finding it and likely to find it, is the right thing to do for the citizens of Tennessee.

Research by the Tennessee Press Association has shown 45 percent of Tennessee households continue to bring newspapers into their homes. The public expects to find public notices in their community newspaper and that is exactly where the notices should stay and continue to be found.

After all, the very purpose of requiring government to place public notices is so that the notices can be public.

What could be more public than the local newspaper?

(Additional information regarding the importance of public notices published in newspapers can be found at: tnpress.com ). 

Jim Zachary is the director of the Tennessee Transparency Project (tntransparency.com), the editor of the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald in metro-Atlanta and a multi-time winner of the Tennessee Press Association – University of Tennessee Meeman Award for editorial excellence. He is available for newsroom training and public speaking engagements and can be contacted at zacharyjim@gmail.com.

Transparency more than campaign pledge

In Advocacy on November 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

One of the great ironies of politics is how most candidates in most elections pledge openness, transparency and accessibility during the course of a campaign. Despite those promises, from the courthouse to the statehouse public officials all across the state deliberate the public’s business in private, hide behind executive sessions, orchestrate voting blocs outside of meetings, stall open records requests and the Tennessee General Assembly even exempts itself from the same Open Meeting Act that is binding on local officials. Closed government is poor government regardless of political ideology or party. Voters should take note of all the campaign posturing about transparency in government and when the next General Assembly convenes remind the men and women we have elected of their promises. Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act is good, but not great. Citizens, the media and open government advocates should put pressure on representatives and senators to improve the language in open meetings legislation to define what it means for elected officials to “deliberate” the public’s business outside of an open public meeting. Citizens of Tennessee have every right to always have the expectation that public policy is only being deliberated in open public meetings. The citizens of Tennessee have every right to know not only what decision are reached by elected officials, but how they arrive at those decisions. In addition to the need for more precise language in the act itself, state legislators could prove their commitment to openness in government by enacting legislation that requires the General Assembly itself to be just as open as local government. All government, not just local government, belongs to the governed. 

Tennessee Republican legislators scrutinized for cloaked secrecy in redistricting

In Advocacy on November 2, 2012 at 11:08 pm

http://openchannel.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/01/14839356-behind-closed-doors-gop-and-dems-alike-cloaked-redistricting-in-secrecy?lite

Nicholas Kusnetz of the The Center for Public Integrity, as reported on NBC News, has scrutinized state legislatures throughout the nation, including Tennessee, for “cloaked redistricting in secrecy,” as states drafted new district maps for Congress and state legislatures based on the census last year. Kusnetz wrote, “In Tennessee, legislative leaders promised ‘the most open, interactive and transparent’ redistricting process in the state’s history. But Republican leaders did not release any information on the plans until the end of the process, about a week before they adopted the proposals. The party did not release full, detailed maps of state legislative districts until two weeks after the legislature had approved them.”

(For the full report select link above).

Governor announces open budget hearings

In Advocacy on November 1, 2012 at 12:33 am

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will hold state budget hearings for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 on Tuesday, November 6 through Tuesday, November 13. This year the hearings will be held in the Davidson Room on the third floor of the Tennessee Tower in Nashville. Haslam, Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes and David Thurman, the state budget director, will preside.

The proceedings may be viewed live online at www.tn.gov to give Tennesseans that are unable to attend accessibility to the budget discussions of each state agency.

All Central Standard Time. Tuesday, November 6 9:30 – 10 a.m. Safety  10 – 10:30 Tourist Development 10:30 – 11 Military 11 – 11:30  Veterans Affairs 11:30 – 12 p.m. Agriculture 12 – 1:30 p.m. Lunch 1:30 – 2:30 Education 2:30 – 3:30  Environment and Conservation 3:30 – 3:40 Media availability with the governor 3:40 – 4 Break 4 – 5 p.m.  Health  Wednesday, November 7 10:30 – 11 a.m.  Revenue 11 – 12 p.m. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services 12 – 1:30 Lunch 1:30 – 2 Commerce and Insurance 2 – 3  Human Services 3 – 3:30 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation 3:30 – 4 General Services 4 – 4:30 Transportation 4:30 p.m. Media availability with the governor Thursday, November 8 10 – 11 a.m. Children’s Services 11 – 12 p.m. Correction 12 – 1:30 Lunch 1:30 – 2 Education Lottery Corporation 2 – 3 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 3 – 3:30 Finance and Administration 3:30 – 4 Labor and Workforce Development 4 – 4:30 p.m.   Financial Institutions 4:30 p.m. Media availability with the governor

TN Press highlights Office of Open Records

In Advocacy on October 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson has highlighted the work being done by the state’s Office of Open Records. Gibson profiles Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge who sits at the helm of the office that has assisted more than 5,000 Tennesseans in pursuit of greater government transparency. Gibson writes, “Annual reports filed by the Office for 2008-11 showed 4,129 queries and complaints were received over that four-year period. Calls to the office averaged 1,240 annually for the last two years. The 2012 report will be due March 1. More than a majority of OORC calls comes from government, mostly local. Almost half came from citizens and fewer than 8 percent came from the news media.” The full article can be found at: http://www.tnpress.com.

Hodge’s work has been an invaluable resource in open records and open meetings advocacy because of her clear understanding and even handed application of the state’s open meetings and open records legislation. A link to the Office of Open Records can be found in the right hand column on the tntransparency.com main page. 

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.