Even elected officials have trouble prying loose government information

Tucked in a Nashville Scene article about Nashville councilman John Cooper is an anecdote that is not altogether unusual — an elected official hitting a roadblock in getting what he thinks should be basic public government information.

At-large councilman John Cooper of Nashville

At-large Nashville Councilman John Cooper

Cooper is the chairman of Metro Council’s Budget and Finance Committee and the article by Steven Hale describes him as “a vocal opponent of the type of incentive deals that have been a staple of Metro’s economic development strategy for years.”

Cooper tells The Scene that “I’m kind of in a thing with Rolling Mill Hill, trying to get just basic information about the transaction.” Having a tough time, he’s told by the Metro Development and Housing Agency that he will need to do what everybody else does: File a public records request.

From the story:

After he sent letters to various officials asking about the Metro Development and Housing Agency’s plans to sell some land on Rolling Mill Hill for private development, Cooper was eventually told he’d have to file a public records request and was encouraged to come by the MDHA board meeting during its public comment period (which he did). 

“You can be chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, but that does not mean that you get any higher level of cooperation with accountability,” he says.

Although he doesn’t seem likely to come out on the winning side of the (minimal) debate over incentives any time soon, Cooper says his goal is to at least create a “higher-information environment.” He sees the chairmanship as “a platform to ask questions and make people provide accurate information.”

“Ultimately, the question is: Are we buying growth?” he says. “And if we’re buying growth, are we overpaying for it?”

Cooper is not alone. State lawmakers have been known to file public records requests for state government information, and TCOG’s help line has had more than a few calls from county commissioners across the state who can’t seem to get information on some part of county government they are elected to oversee.

One strategy of state lawmakers has been to file legislation requiring mandatory reports of certain information by government agencies. Some examples this year include bills that would expand annual reporting on civil asset forfeitures,  jobs creation based on job tax credits, information on crimes involving firearms, recommendations for outsourcing, and deaths of people in custody. Last year, legislation was enacted to require reporting on deaths of citizens related to law enforcement interactions.

Such proactive disclosure does help create a “higher-information environment,” at least on the issues lawmakers identify as needing the most sunlight.

What do you think?