Posts Tagged ‘watchdog’

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:

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:

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. 

Police scanners are transparency issue

In Advocacy on April 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Across the nation, reporters are struggling with the encryption of police scanners. While reporters struggle everyday to keep the public informed, officials find ways to to conceal information.

Journalist Justin Glawe writes, “ While police exist to protect the public from criminals, journalists, among other things, act as a check against law enforcement.

Journalist Kelsey Cochran writes, “Encrypting police radios leaves the fox watching the hen house in one of the worst ways imaginable.

I hold a certain level of trust in the police I work with every day. They haven’t given me a reason not to trust them. At least, not yet. But that doesn’t mean I should have to rely on them to tell me what is news.

“Just as I’m not a trained law enforcement officer, they are not journalists. Their job is to protect their investigations. My job is to tell the story. How do I know they’re telling me everything I need to know?

“What many of them do not understand is that the information contained in police reports, etc. does not belong to them. It belongs to the citizens, and it belongs to the victims. It belongs to the people who want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods, not the police.”

Glawe and Cochran are joined by other top journalists across the nation in the important conversation.

What are your experiences? What do you have to contribute?

Join the conversation at:

Lawmakers back loosening of sunshine laws

In Advocacy on March 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Lawmakers back loosening of sunshine laws

Josh Adams, of The Tennessean, is reporting that Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell is once again going after the state’s sunshine laws in an attempt to “give city and county board members greater flexibility” regarding open public meetings. Adams reports that the measures is “a move critics denounce as an affront to government transparency.” Barnwell made a similar attempt in 2011 but failed. 

For the full report see the article in The Tennessean at:

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: ). 

Jim Zachary is the director of the Tennessee Transparency Project (, 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

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.