Bringing a little Sunshine back into Tennessee

Friday, March 16, 2007

by Frank Gibson

This is "Sunshine Week." No, it has nothing to do with celebrating the start of Daylight Savings Time. This is sunshine in government as in "sunshine is the best disinfectant."

"Sunshine Sunday" star-ted five years ago in Florida, where the news media used it to focus attention on inadequacies of Florida's open government laws. It soon expanded to "Sunshine Week" nationwide to focus on the public's right-to-know everywhere.

Tennessee marked it first last year after a 2002 survey placed our public records law among six worst in the country -- ahead of only one southern state, Alabama. A Tennessee survey disclosed complaints of secret meetings, published in the state's newspapers, rose 45% between 2003 and 2005. A 2004 audit of city and county offices and school boards in all 95 counties by TCOG volunteers and journalists showed one of every three public records requests was denied.

This year, the Associated Press surveyed states to see how well open government laws are working nationwide and reported: "Laws are sporadically enforced, penalties for failure to comply are mild and violators almost always walk away with nothing more than a reprimand." Tennessee landed in the list of the worst five because its laws have minor or no penalties for violations.

Tennessee doesn't stack up well in any of those categories. Our laws are not enforced unless citizens can afford to sue. It is among a dozen states with no penalties for violations, and it is unheard of for an official to be reprimanded. In fact, Tennessee taxpayers here pay to defend public officials, even after a judge finds they have violated the law.

The chief lobbyist for county governments argues that none of the 115 reported sunshine law complaints in 2003-2005 were proven to be violations. At least 20 were obvious violations, but no state or local agency is authorized to investigate complaints.

Last year, when legislation was filed to overhaul the 33-year-old open meetings law, the AP reported county commissioners' lobbyist Doug Goddard vowed to kill the bill. No one was surprised to see it end up in a government study committee.

The study committee ran out of time in November and is asking the legislature to give it until early 2008 to finish. That request has cleared the Senate and is before a House sub-committee on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Bredesen has asked the legislature to fund an ombudsman in state Comptroller John Morgan's office to field complaints and help resolve disputes before they into expensive liti-gation the taxpayer has to pay for.Local government are lobbying to delay that until next year so it can be studied, and one state senator had said it would be too expensive. The $100,000 price tag would be only a small fraction of what taxpayers are paying to lobby in Nashville and what they are paying for legal counsel for every government agency in the state.

Tennessee's public records law ranked 44th in 2002 (it remains unchanged) because a citizen's only recourse is expensive litigation that he or she almost always have to pay themselves.

The governor has said he knows how the bureaucracy and high fees can be used to deny access and acknowledges that few citizens can "write large checks to lawyers" to contest government actions. He recalled that as Nashville's mayor he had to tell the police department it couldn't charge $5 a page for copies of public records because THE department "was mad at some reporter."

The ombudsman was proposed to answer questions from public officials wanting to do the right thing as well as citizens. Hopefully, it can help change the attitude in some quarters which look at records requests as burdens, and help officials accept the "presumption of openness" the legislature intended 50 years ago when it passed the law.

Someone remarked recently that "pessimists are not unhappy people. They're just not disappointed as often as optimists."

Just as Daylight Savings Time brings an extra hour of light, there is room for optimism that Tennesseans eventually will see more sunshine in government. The public has every right to expect it.

Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Reach him at On the web at