FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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April 14, 2014 8:26 AM

Drivers caught texting in Tennessee face fines up to $50, while those who use cellphones in classrooms or courtrooms may be forced to hand them over. Texting during church service is generally a no-no and considered down-right rude while dining with friends.

So, is it proper for lawmakers to converse with one another, their family or constituents via text during a public meeting? The answer appears to depend upon the message, open government proponents say, although getting to the message is quite another problem.

“This is a new one,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director at Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “Public officials ought to be very, very, careful in texting or emailing each other during a public meeting, because it does seem to be basically taking what should be open discussion into some type of private discussion … a veiled discussion right there in the public meeting.” Continue>>>
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March 18, 2014 10:17 AM

Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Independent, TEA party or Libertarian issue. The importance of transparency in local, state and federal government should transcend parties and political ideologies.

Checks and balances provide few checks and little balance when officials broker deals behind closed doors and conceal documents that contain important information that citizens have the right, and often the need, to know.

Local government has the biggest impact in the lives of citizens on a day-to-day basis. Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, personal property taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The decisions being made, the monies being spent and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the utility district all belong to liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, TEA party volunteers, Libertarians and even politically disinterested individuals. All stakeholders have a stake in open meetings and public records and should care about transparency issues. Continue>>>
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February 20, 2014 1:11 AM

Governor Bill Haslam on Thursday announced the launch of “Transparent Tennessee,” an overhaul of the state’s transparency website to offer more user-friendly information online to Tennessee taxpayers.

Transparent Tennessee is a one-stop shop for searching public data on how state dollars are spent. The site includes a searchable checkbook with more interactive data related to state agency expenses, vendor payments and travel reimbursements.

“A state government that is accountable to Tennessee taxpayers is an important part of being customer-focused, efficient and effective,” Governor Haslam said. “The advanced function of this website will allow citizens more access to information about how state dollars are spent.” Continue>>>
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December 12, 2013 2:58 PM

From Tennessee Coalition for Open Government: Does the public have a right to know about the drugs used to execute death row inmates?

This question has been raised in recent months in court in at least three states, two of which recently enacted new laws or protocols to keep secret from citizens the source of execution drugs.

In 2011, at least six states, including Tennessee, had their execution drugs seized or taken by the DEA after it became clear that the drugs had been imported illegally.

States have sought to keep their new suppliers secret, reasoning that the companies might be harassed or otherwise influenced to shut off supplies if the public became aware of them.

Tennessee added an exemption in the Tennessee Open Records Act eight months ago in April to exempt from disclosure “an entity” directly involved in an execution.

Previously, the law allowed only for the names of people directly involved – such as those on the execution team – to be kept confidential.

The updated law explains that the entity could be one “involved in the procurement or provision of chemicals, equipment, supplies and other items for use in carrying out a sentence of death…”

The Tennessean reported in October that the Department of Correction had been waiting, in part, to get the confidentiality law in place before establishing its new lethal injection protocol that uses pentobarbital, common in animal euthanasia.

If the new one-drug protocol had been announced before the law change, it’s conceivable that a citizen might have requested information under the state’s open records act to successfully discover the drug supplier.

Visit Tennessee Coalition for Open Government for more.

Deborah Fisher is the Executive Director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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November 11, 2013 3:33 PM

From Tennessee Coalition for Open Government: NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has named Deborah Fisher as its new executive director.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational organization begun 10 years ago to preserve, protect and improve citizen access to public information and open government in Tennessee.

The coalition serves as an information clearinghouse and resource on problems and solutions related to public records and open meetings at the state and local level. Coalition members include media, professional groups and individual citizens interested in transparency in government.

The coalition has assisted hundreds of citizens and journalists regarding open government issues, as well as led educational campaigns and research activities regarding open government. It led the effort to develop the Office of Open Records Counsel within the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury in 2008 so that citizens could get guidance from the state in obtaining public records from local government. The office also provides guidance to local public officials on open records law.

TCOG tracks threats to open government, including monitoring proposed legislation and legal developments, sharing them with the public as part of its mission with an understanding that the best way to preserve and improve access to public business is through research and education. It is a member of a national network of freedom of information organizations in each state.

Fisher has worked as a journalist for 25 years. Most recently, she was senior editor for news at The Tennessean in Nashville where she worked for a decade leading news, business and investigative reporters. She is past president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and currently serves on its board.

Fisher also worked for several years in Texas as a reporter and editor. She was editor and vice president of the Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times, where she also held roles as managing editor and business editor. She worked as a reporter at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise and the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph.

Fisher is a graduate of Baylor University and a native of Paducah, Kentucky.

Please see here for the complete press release.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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November 11, 2013 10:03 AM

From commercialappeal.com: NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Transparency advocates are warning about the ramifications of a recent Tennessee appeals court ruling that "high government officials" can keep documents secret if they deem them part of their decision-making process.

The court upheld a lower court's ruling that then-Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration was justified in denying the release of records on the basis that they were part of the "deliberative process" about how to deal with demonstrators encamped in the state Capitol in 2005 to protest cuts to TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program.

[...]

Frank Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the decision is curious because the documents sought by Davidson could have been blocked under other exemptions such as lawyer-client privilege that are already on the books.

TCOG is a nonprofit alliance of citizen, professional and media groups, including The Associated Press, committed to promoting government transparency.

"This will provide another vague excuse for some government officials to abuse the records law despite language in there that the privilege should apply in specific and narrow circumstances," said Gibson, who now works as a lobbyist for the Tennessee Press Association.

Visit commercialappeal.com for more.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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November 11, 2013 9:38 AM

From The Republic: NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The former senior news editor at The Tennessean has been chosen to lead the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

TCOG President Doug Pierce said the group is glad to have someone of Deborah Fisher's experience and passion for open government as the coalition's new executive director.

Visit The Republic for more.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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October 24, 2013 2:27 PM

From The Tennessean: It has always troubled me that ignorance of the law can be used as a legal defense for not complying with the Tennessee Public Records Act.

That absurdity came back a few weeks ago when The Hendersonville Star News reported on a brouhaha that had been raging for months between Hendersonville city officials and a group of local residents. The issue was whether (and how much) the city could charge to produce copies of public records.

Visit The Tennessean for more.

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July 23, 2013 12:52 PM

From Columbia Daily Herald:  One Maury Countian’s fight for government transparency in his community has garnered him state recognition.

Spring Hill resident Mike Bennett, a longtime Daily Herald columnist and community activist, was awarded the first ever Tennessee Sunshine Hero award by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government at the annual Tennessee Press Association awards ceremony Friday.

Bennett’s efforts to improve transparency in Maury County are unrivaled — a perfect example of the power of an informed populace, said TCOG Director Kent Flanagan. Flanagan selected Bennett from a number of nominees for the award this year based on what the TCOG director witnessed himself at a meeting of the county commission’s ad hoc rule committee last winter.

It was there that Bennett attempted to inform the rules committee it had erred by failing to properly notify the public of the meeting. Because of the catch, the county had to repeat the meeting to ensure the law was followed.

“That meeting solidified in my mind the kind of effort that citizens in Maury County needed to allow more input to the county government and city government,” Flanagan said in his introduction to the award Friday. “You need to be able to show people that they can make a difference. I think that Mike’s work is evidence of that.”

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds.

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March 15, 2013 1:02 PM

Opinion from The Nashville City Paper:

For months last year, I kept asking members of the Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Press Association if they knew anything about the history of the Tennessee Public Records Act of 1957.

I found details about the TPRA and what it covered, but little in the way of context until I visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives and began reading about who developed the legislation and how it was enacted. And, yes, TPA was the driving force behind it.

During the summer convention of 1956, TPA began an ambitious campaign to make state and local government records and meetings more accessible to citizens.

The effort was lead by Carl A. Jones, then publisher of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and incoming TPA president, and Coleman Harwell, editor of The Nashville Tennessean and chairman of the organization’s FOI Committee.

Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC. --eds

November 14, 2012 9:29 AM

From The Tennessean:

An eight-month review of how the executive branch responds to requests for public records has resulted in Gov. Bill Haslam deciding not to make any major changes.
 
The Republican governor said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that his initial fears about the potential abuse of open-records laws had been allayed. Haslam said he has instructed his Cabinet to expedite records production to the public and the media and to try to keep costs as low as possible.
 
[...]
 
“The biggest problems that newspapers have isn’t with the state, for the most part. It’s more with local governments, particularly in the rural areas,” said Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
 
[...]
 
Flanagan applauded the governor’s decision not to impose across-the-board fees on records requests, but he noted that not all requests will necessarily appear reasonable to records custodians at first blush.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC.--eds.

October 5, 2012 12:32 PM

A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week:

Advocates fight to keep Georgia archives open to public

Getting to state archives will become a lot more difficult after Nov. 1. That’s when the Georgia Archives, a repository of records and artifacts that go back to the 1700s, is slated to be closed to the public. The only public access will be through limited appointments. ...The prospect has put the Georgia Archives in national news as the only state archives in the United States whose public records will be closed to the public.

Visit CrossRoadsNews.com for the rest.

Asheville Police Evidence Room Audit Sparks Public Records Debate

The Police Evidence Room in Asheville is the subject of an intense public records battle. More than a year ago, a partial audit revealed guns, drugs, and cash were missing. The police chief resigned. Another, more thorough audit has been completed. But the district attorney won’t release its findings. He says it’s part of an ongoing SBI investigation. A coalition of media groups sued for the audit’s release, and last week, a judge sided with the DA.

Visit WFAE for the rest.

SC justices hear clash over what documents should be made public

COLUMBIA — State Supreme Court justices quizzed lawyers on both sides of a thorny issue Wednesday involving a statewide public school advocacy group, freedom of speech and the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. “What we have here is an unprecedented case,” attorney Kevin Hall told the justices. Hall, a Columbia lawyer, is representing Rocky Disabato, a Charleston man who sued the S.C. Association of School Administrators seeking access to its internal records, including telephone records.

Visit HeraldOnline.com for the rest.

Shhhh. We're litigating.

Under Illinois law, the proceedings of some court cases are kept hidden from public view. This can make sense in narrow circumstances ...Judges, though, have broad discretion to decide when court records are sealed. ...The Tribune investigation found that judges regularly fail to give a reason in their orders for the so-called "sealing" of files, as they should to comply with the law and court guidelines. They sometimes keep the "sealing orders" secret as well, so the public has no way to know that a case has been hidden. They also seal entire cases when they need only to remove sensitive information such as home addresses or Social Security numbers.

Visit Chicago Tribune for the rest.

Albuquerque mayor Berry receives award for open government

Albuquerque's mayor gets an award for open government - but some city-dwellers said he doesn't deserve it. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government praises Mayor Richard Berry for openness and transparency at City Hall, while community activists said he is about as transparent as a concrete wall.

Visit KOB.com for the rest.

California open-meetings law based on local lawsuit

A new law that creates a low-cost way of asking local boards and commissions to adhere to open-meetings laws has its roots here in Tulare County. The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, allows members of the public to send local government bodies a cease-and-desist letter if they believe government agencies have violated the series of state open meetings laws known as the Brown Act. The government agency can avoid a court case if it makes an unconditional promise to stop the problem behavior. If it refuses, it allows the case to continue on in court.

Visit Visalia Times-Delta for the rest.

Records show stun gun use against people in mental crises, Vt.

Ten times in the past 18 months, state police fired electronic stun guns at people threatening suicide or at others experiencing a mental health crisis. That's according to police records and video recordings obtained by Vermont Public Radio under the state's open records law.

Visit Vermont Public Radio for the rest.

County records in Pa.to be available online for public viewing

Schuylkill County residents will soon be able to view county records online. The Schuylkill County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of a document management software program from PropertyInfo Corp. during a work session Wednesday.

Visit The Republican-Herald for the rest.

Ballot measure to increase California government transparency may incur costs

This November, Berkeley residents will vote on a ballot measure aiming to increase transparency in local government, despite an existing ordinance adopted just last year that planned to accomplish similar goals. ...Though the city’s earlier Open Government Ordinance was adopted in 2011 to meet similar goals of increased public record and meeting access, the new ordinance would replace the current ordinance and create a new oversight committee that could enact harsher punishments — including a lawsuit as a last resort — for officials who do not comply with the new provisions.

Visit The Daily Californian for the rest.

Open government advocates praise Tenn. comptroller's move to waive 1st $25 in records requests

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Comptroller Justin Wilson's move to automatically waive the first $25 in fees for public records requests is drawing praise from open government advocates. The proposed rules, which would also give the comptroller the discretion to waive all costs related to public record searches and copies, were unanimously recommended for adoption by the Joint Government Operations Committees on Wednesday. "The fee waiver provisions are progressive for Tennessee and should be a model for other state and local agencies," said Frank Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.

Visit The Republic for the rest.

Montpelier records request yields councilors’ texts

MONTPELIER — The results of a public records request made by The Times Argus has put the spotlight on the latest trend among some public officials: texting and emailing one another during public meetings. While the issue is not illegal, it closes in on unethical behavior, and Secretary of State Jim Condos cautioned Tuesday that elected officials should be careful if they continue with the practice.

Visit Times Argus for the rest.

Changes to Georgia's open government laws could close student discipline hearings to public

ATLANTA — Changes to Georgia's open government laws may have an unintended consequence at the state's universities if student disciplinary hearings are no longer open to the public. The Red & Black, an independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, recently requested records from student conduct hearings. UGA cited the new state law in denying the newspaper access to the records, Red & Black Publisher Harry Montevideo told The Associated Press. The university denied at least two records requests filed since July, said the paper's editorial adviser, Ed Morales.

Visit The Republic for the rest.

Wisconsin GOPers sued over potential ALEC ties

Two watchdog groups have filed a lawsuit against five Wisconsin state lawmakers; it claims that the Republicans violated the state’s public records law by failing to disclose private emails that may have tied them to the conservative advocacy group the American Legislative Exchange Council. ...According to the lawsuit, correspondence about ALEC in a private email account is still subject to a public records request, because it is “indisputably related to official government business. Wisconsin legislators are members of ALEC only by virtue of their status as a state legislator, and they correspond with ALEC in their official capacity as Wisconsin legislators.”

Visit Salon for the rest.

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