By FRANK GIBSON
It’s national “Sunshine Week,” a time for Americans to take stock in the value of open government, and this year it may be more relevant than any of the previous four.
Newspapers and other media are encouraged to put a spotlight this week on laws designed to “enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”
“Excessive and unwarranted secrecy” surrounding government action – or inaction – impacts people’s lives and breeds distrust and a loss of confidence in government, Sunshine Week founders stress. Take recent auto safety problems, weak regulation, and national reports that certain defects were hidden from the public by confidential court settlements. Or look at the angry backlash to the fact that massive health care reform legislation was worked out behind closed doors.
That loss of confidence in government draws comparison to how one national economist described consumer confidence and attitudes about the economic recovery. “Last year, they saw the glass as half empty. This year, it’s half full.”
Attitudes and actions within government that lead to public anger, like that reflected in the Tea Party movement, are often on display in school boards, county commissions, city councils, and other public bodies across the state. Not everywhere, but in enough places to show up in public opinion polls. When Tennessee voters were asked two years ago whether they thought more public business was conducted in the open or in secret, 62 percent said “in secret.”
In the last two years, we have seen an unprecedented number of bills in the state legislature that would further weaken records and open meetings laws.
From the 300-plus calls the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government received from citizens and reporters in the past 18 months, here’s how those attitudes play out:
One school board just outside Nashville refuses to let the public see its agenda until right before the meeting. That means parents have to show up to find out if some action affecting their child is contemplated. Some agencies make the press and the public pay large fees for hard copies of records when it would be easier and more efficient to provide it electronically. There are recurring examples of county commissions meeting in secret “executive” sessions under the attorney-client privilege with no lawyer present. Other bodies try to take secret votes which are clearly illegal under the “sunshine law.” Some local bodies take up issues not on their public agenda and without timely and sufficient notice given to the public.
That’s the “glass half-empty” part.
Two years ago, the legislature made some modest improvements to the Tennessee Public Records Act, including setting deadlines for responses to open records requests. Records requests in some cities were ignored for weeks and months. Others charged high fees to discourage requests. Some agencies even tried to charge to see routine records.
In many ways those improvements fell short of efforts to clear up vagueness in the law, but one significant addition should have long-term returns.
The legislature, with a nudge from Gov. Phil Bredesen, established the Office of the Open Records Counsel within the state Comptroller’s Office and created an Advisory Committee on Open Government.
Elisha Hodge, an attorney and the state open records counsel, filed her 2009 annual report with the General Assembly earlier this month. It showed that office handled 1,085 inquiries about the requirements of the law. That was almost twice as many as the year before. Half came from government employees. The other half came from the general public and news media, but mostly from citizens.
Despite the fact the office has never been adequately funded, there were two pieces of good news in those numbers. First, some 800 public employees called to get guidance from the office on how to handle requests. Secondly, an almost equal number of citizens had a place to call for the first time when they had problems or just questions about the law.
That makes the glass half full.
Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached at 615-202-2685.