Confehr: Open records always an issue

Friday, July 23, 2010

John Pittard, one of the respected men on Murfreesboro's City Council, would paraphrase U-T's John Ward, saying "It's politics time in Tennessee."

"The funny season" is another tag for this time before elections.

Now, a passel of mail arrived at the Tribune news desk about candidates and there are three editions of this newspaper before Election Day - 13 days away.

Some letters are kooky. Some are not so nutty. All are unsigned.

Anonymous mail is frequently dismissed as worthless because if there were anything to it, someone would claim credit for ringing the warning bell.

Recently, one letter made its way to law enforcement officials. By the time they got the information, it had been spread so much that it was impossible to investigate allegations of gambling at a public office. We may never know if they were friendly bets on the Super Bowl, or something organized, or if it happened. The director was insulted by the thought that something illegal might be seen as possible in his department - although his predecessor quit under a cloud.

That issue was the topic of a front page story largely because public officials meeting in public session addressed the complaint.

As newspaper staff debates the right course of action with regard to intercepted anonymous mailings - even if there is an obligation to report on goofy mail, we face another knotty question with greater ramifications.

It's about the next economic and community director in Lewisburg.

A few years ago, the five mayors in the county and their chairman of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board were taken to Chancery Court because the JECDB Executive Committee would not release names of applicants who wanted to become the executive director, a post now held by Mike Wiles. His work is similar to that of the city's economic and community development director.

State law allows any "citizen" of Tennessee to haul public officials into court where they're required to say why a public document isn't available for public viewing as required by Tennessee's open records act. The JECDB lost.

With regard to the city's search for a new director of economic and community development, here are some questions: Will the best candidate not apply out of fear that their name will become a public record that can be examined by anyone? Will there be a disservice to the community if those names are published? Are newspapers the only entities that would want to know who applied? If a prospective applicant is concerned that he or she will be fired if their boss knows an applicant's aspiration, then is that the best candidate anyway?

City council discussion already acknowledged that politics is part of the situation. There have been acknowledgements in City Hall about the open records law and the fact that people - other than those on a special advisory committee - could attend interviews with the applicants.

What to do? That's not totally clear yet. Public comment is welcome on this editorial page.