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Posts Tagged ‘Transparency’

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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Time to champion Sunshine Week

In Advocacy on March 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Sunshine Week 2014 begins Sunday, March 16.

The Transparency Project encourages all open government advocates, newspapers, watchdog groups and public officials who believe in the importance of government transparency to join us in highlighting this week long effort. 

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are encouraging open government advocates throughout the nation to join them in celebrating the importance of open government. The campaign begins Sunday, March 16, and concludes Saturday, March 22. 

 There are dozens of Sunshine Week events hosted by various organizations around the country. The 16th annual National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum and the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIA Fest are Friday, March 14. The D.C. Open Government Summittakes place next Wednesday, March 19. Other events include Seventh Annual FOI Day CelebrationSunshine Week 2014 Celebration at the Department of Justice, Unlocking Government Data,Threats to Transparency: Problems with Money in Politics, and other events listed at sunshineweek.org.

According to ASNE, Sunshine Week 2014 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and donations from Bloomberg and the Gridiron Club and Foundation. 

Watchdog groups, newspapers and individuals are encouraged to take part and can find a “Toolkit” at the Sunshine Week website that includes free editorial cartoons and opinion columns to be used during the week of March 16-22.

For more information on Sunshine Week and how to participate, visit sunshineweek.org or contact us at sunshineweek@asne.org.

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

New government transparency project launched

In Advocacy on December 31, 2013 at 11:57 pm

A new open government advocacy project was launched today.

The sister site to the Tennessee Transparency Project can be found at:

http://www.transparencyprojectofgeorgia.com

Court ruling could threaten government transparency, AP’s Schelzig reports

In Advocacy on November 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Erik Schelzig, a longtime government watchdog with the Associated Press, is reporting the angst of transparency advocates regarding a Tennessee higher court ruling that could have ripple affects related to open government across the state.

Schelzig reported, “The court upheld a lower court’s ruling that then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration was justified in denying the release of records on the basis that they were part of the ‘deliberative process,’ about how to deal with demonstrators encamped in the state Capitol in 2005 to protest cuts to TennCare, the state’s expanded Medicaid program,” (Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 10, 2013).

He added that the ruling “endorsed the argument that ‘advice high governmental officials receive be protected from disclosure’ because those officials need to be able to speak freely and confidentially with trusted advisers.”

One open government advocate called the ruling “an assault on open government.” The report also includes statements from Tennessee Press Association attorney Rick Hollow, TPA public policy director Frank Gibson and others who expressed concerns over how far the courts might extend  or interpret the ruling in the future by invoking a “deliberative process privilege.”

Tennessee newspapers, open government advocates and watchdog groups need to begin speaking out about this new twist on government transparency in order to stave off future loose interpretations of this ruling that could be used to further conceal the people’s business from the people of Tennessee.

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. 

Study shows Tennessee ranks at bottom in transparency, TPA’s Gibson reports

In Advocacy on August 23, 2013 at 11:01 pm

The Tennessee Press Association’s Public Policy Director Frank Gibson has reported Tennessee’s open meetings laws have been ranked among the worst in the United States.

Gibson provides analysis of a study by the Better Government Association that ranks the state’s “sunshine law” 49th  in a state-by-state comparison of open meetings laws.

The full report can be found at:

http://www.tnpress.com/bulletinextras.html#gibbs

IRE touts FOIA Machine

In Advocacy on July 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm

 

IRE is touting the success of the FOIA Machine. 

 

Investigative Reporters and Editors reported this week that on ” July 16, a team of journalists and developers launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project called FOIA Machine.”

According to the IRE report, the team “asked for $17,500 to build a tool to help journalists and citizens request public information — a “TurboTax for government records.”

The IRE report indicates the experiment has been a huge success and a boon for journalists and private citizens making public records requests. For the full report go to:

https://ire.org/blog/ire-news/2013/07/23/foia-machine-sees-early-success-kickstarter/

Governor says no to Ag Gag bill

In Advocacy on May 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam released the following statement regarding HB 1191/SB 1248:

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee.  Farmers play a vital role in our state’s economy, heritage and history.  I understand their concerns about large scale attacks on their livelihoods.  I also appreciate that the types of recordings this bill targets may be obtained at times under false pretenses, which I think is wrong,” Haslam said. 

“Our office has spent a great deal of time considering this legislation.  We’ve had a lot of input from people on all sides of the issue.  After careful consideration, I am going to veto the legislation.  Some vetoes are made solely on policy grounds.  Other vetoes may be the result of wanting the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation for a number of reasons.  My veto here is more along the lines of the latter.  I have a number of concerns.

“First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect.  Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law without saying so.  If that is the case, it should say so.  Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence. 

“For these reasons, I am vetoing HB1191/SB1248, and I respectfully encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this issue.”

The Tennessee Press Association is applauding the state’s newspapers for coverage of the controversial bill, strong editorials in opposition and lobbying efforts leading up to the governor’s decision.