State open meetings legislation stalls

On March 19, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

But Legislature expected to OK public records measure By ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press, KnoxNews March 17, 2008 NASHVILLE – Nearly three years after the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal led to demands for stronger open government laws, the Legislature is poised to approve a measure to improve access to public records. But efforts to strengthen laws […]

But Legislature expected to OK public records measure

By ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press, KnoxNews
March 17, 2008

NASHVILLE – Nearly three years after the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal led to demands for stronger open government laws, the Legislature is poised to approve a measure to improve access to public records.

But efforts to strengthen laws requiring local governments to conduct their business in open meetings have been jettisoned for at least another year.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he’s sponsoring a bill without new public meetings provisions because of fears that changes would have led to weaker requirements and that open government laws “could have gone downhill in that regard.”

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle said the slow pace of improvements to open government laws is a testament to a range of diverging interests and concerns.

“It’s very difficult to change them unless everyone agrees, and there’s a lot of sensitivity about any changes,” said Kyle of Memphis. “You’ve got to make sure you’re doing the right thing – and you can see how difficult it’s been.”

McNally was the chairman of a special study committee set up after initial efforts to overhaul the state’s Sunshine Law stalled in 2006. The committee made little progress in its first year, as open government advocates and local government groups deadlocked over a slew of proposals.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, appeared to have broken the impasse the next year by deciding not to wait for the panel to make its recommendations before including funding for an open records ombudsman in his budget.

This year’s legislation would write the ombudsman’s responsibilities into law and create a mandatory four-day deadline for government agencies to respond to records requests or to explain why they need more time.

The ombudsman also would be responsible for collecting information on complaints about possible public records or meetings violations.

“This gives us a way for an independent office to look at that, at what requests are coming in and what problems are occurring, and provide us with some possible solutions,” McNally said.

Local government groups wanted to allow up to three officials of a governmental body to meet privately to discuss public business. Current law prohibits two or more members of bodies like city councils or county commissions from discussing public business in private.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he welcomed the demise of the proposal to have more elected officials be able to meet in private.

“I have no interest in some of the amendments that would have made access more difficult,” he said. “As a former county commissioner, I never found it difficult to comply with the law just as it is.”

House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, echoed Norris’ comments about not needing looser meetings rules.

“I’ve never really understood the need to meet privately,” he said. “What I would say privately, I would say publicly.”

Legislators make the open government laws, but courts have ruled they aren’t bound to conduct all their meetings in public or to open all their records for public inspection.

The Legislature also has enacted numerous exemptions to the open records law, closing materials ranging from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation criminal files to nearly all information about students at public schools and universities.

This year, lawmakers are considering another exemption bill, sponsored by Odom, to close access to the home addresses and phone numbers of government employees. “There’s no reason in my opinion for that to be a public document that could be secured on simple request,” he said.

Odom said he is sponsoring the bill because of state employees’ concerns about threatening behavior like stalking. But Odom said he’s considering a change to his bill that would give supervisors the right to consider requests for public employees’ home addresses.

“If someone from an official news agency comes in and demonstrates they need to use this for news purposes, then the supervisor could grant that specific request,” he said.

That proposal has yet to advance out of a House subcommittee.

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