Governor-elect Bill Lee announced today on the priorities page of his new website that he “will lead a complete overhaul of our open records and open meetings acts” and receive public comments before he signs new laws.
Under “Open and Responsive Government,” the priority says:
“Tennessee taxpayers deserve a transparent and open government. Bill will initiate a new program to invite and receive public comments on new laws before signing, and he will get out of the bubble of Nashville to deliver State of the State addresses in all three Grand Divisions throughout his tenure. Bill will lead a complete overhaul of our open records and open meetings acts to make government more transparent to you.”
Legislature also examining public records law
The governor-elect’s interest in changing public records and open meetings laws comes at the same time a joint legislative committee has been meeting to review a growing number of exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act that have put more government information off-limits to the public.
That committee, which has met three times and is expected to meet at least twice more before the session starts, was created at the direction of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and outgoing House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, are the co-chairs of the open records committee.
The committee is looking at a list of 538 statutory exemptions to access that was published by the Office of Open Records Counsel in January, also at the request of the Legislature. After more exemptions were added in 2018, the number now exceeds 560, according to office, which maintains them in a searchable database on its website.
TCOG has advocated changes to exemption process
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government made a presentation to the Open Records Ad Hoc Committee and suggested changes in the way the state adopts exemptions so that the public has more opportunity to know about exemptions before they are adopted and provide more vetting. (See “We need a new way of adopting public records exemptions.”) TCOG also suggested strengthening criteria so that exemptions are narrowly drawn to shield the desired protected information, but not so broadly that the exemption can be easily abused to shield what should be public information.
In addition, TCOG suggested to the committee a list of 13 exemptions and exemption categories that should be examined for narrowing or removing.
While the legislative committee is not charged with looking at access issues, such as the cost of getting copies of public records or delays, those issues remain key for transparency advocates, including TCOG.
A study done earlier this year by TCOG shows that many local government entities have adopted policies to prevent people from taking pictures of public records with their cell phones, and now require a driver’s license or photo identification before accepting a public records request. (See 2018 Audit)
The issue of state agencies preventing citizens from taking pictures of records with cell phones also arose before the state’s Joint Government Operations Committee, leading the committee to instruct the agencies to reconsider this part of their policy.
Last major changes to the Tennessee public records law in 2008
The last major changes to the public records law came in 2008, when the law was strengthened so that government entities had to cite state law before they denied access. Before that, it was not unusual for a government entity to deny access to a public records and tell the requester they had to cite the state law that made the record open.
The new law in 2008 also created the Office of Open Records Counsel and the Advisory Committee on Open Government (ACOG), a 14-member committee made up of citizen and media representatives, as well as representatives of government entities.
ACOG, however, had become largely inactive in recent years after a burst of activity in the beginning when it helped create the Schedule of Reasonable Fees outlining acceptable fees to charge for copies of public records. In response to this inactivity, the Legislature in 2018 passed a law requiring the group to meet at least once a year, and allowing the group to elect co-chairs so that it could call its own meetings. (Previously meetings were only called by the Office of Open Records Counsel.)
Governor Bill Haslam, in the last legislative session, suggested making use of the Advisory Committee on Open Government. In an exemption bill related to confidentiality of the candidates for university president positions that his administration supported, Haslam asked that ACOG be charged with reporting back to the legislature on the impact of that confidentiality before the exemption expired.
Unlike the public records law that has seem reform and tweaks through the years, the Open Meetings Act has been barely touched. Most complaints about the open meetings law have to do with adequate public notice of meetings, and access to agendas and meeting materials before meetings.