Editorial: Bills would keep citizens in dark on public records

Awesome editorial about need for transparency and accountability in government by Knoxville News Sentinel, reprinted here with permission:

Three bills now pending in the Tennessee Legislature would combine to cripple the public’s access to government records.

One would make citizens pay to see official documents. Another would prevent the public from reviewing state employee performance evaluations. The third would shield from scrutiny the organization that regulates school sports statewide.

The bills’ sponsors and other lawmakers should reconsider these proposals in the context of transparency and accountability.

One bill being pushed by the Tennessee School Boards Association would allow state and local government agencies to charge citizens a fee to inspect documents and require that a request to view records be made in writing. The law already allows government offices to charge for copying, but this paves the way for state agencies and local governments to make citizens pay just to look at documents.

Providing access to records already is part of the mission of a government agency in Tennessee, and citizens, through taxes and fees, already pay for the maintenance of government documents. Allowing agencies to require written records requests and to charge for the routine inspection of documents would have a chilling effect on the public’s ability to hold the government accountable for its actions.

The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, is one that would make performance evaluations of thousands of state employees confidential. The bill would prevent the public inspection of performance evaluations of employees of the comptroller of the treasury, state treasurer, secretary of state and public institutions of higher education.

In practice, that means that the citizens whose taxes pay for these employees’ salaries and who otherwise support their employment could not review the job evaluations of University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Elections Coordinator Mark Goins or numerous other officials who handle the state’s financial investments, oversee property assessments and perform other important tasks. Ironically, passage would prevent the public from looking at job evaluations of the Office of the Open Records Counsel.

Yager and Ramsey in the past have been supportive of open government initiatives, While state employees might raise privacy concerns, we hope they find the public’s interest in having the ability to review job evaluations is more compelling.

The third bill would make secret the records of “voluntary associations that make rules for high school interscholastic sports.” Though not named, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association is the only organization that meets the definition. Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, are the sponsors.

The bill is a response to a lawsuit filed by the now-defunct City Paper in Nashville seeking records of the TSSAA’s investigation of recruiting and tuition violations at Montgomery Bell Academy, an elite private school in Nashville. Last year the state Court of Appeals correctly ruled that as the “functional equivalent” of a government agency though its oversight of interscholastic sports, the TSSAA has to comply with the Public Records Act. The state Supreme Court let the ruling stand.

The bill would shroud in secrecy the activities of the TSSAA, which regulates the sporting activities of thousands of Tennessee teenagers. Information on football player concussions, tuition scandals, the use of ineligible players and any number of other issues could be kept in the shadows.

Legislators always should look at public records bills with the idea of increasing access for the people of Tennessee. Instead of casting their constituents into darkness, lawmakers should allow more light to shine on the conduct of the people’s business.

What do you think?