Gov. Bill Haslam says it may be time to reset the state’s policy for handling requests for public documents.
Haslam’s administration is examining how each department handles requests for public records, saying the state needs to standardize how it responds and charges for the labor and time to provide records.
“A lot of times I see open records requests that I think 10 years ago, the reporter was doing a lot of legwork on his own before he ever asked the open records request,” Haslam told the Tennessee Press Association conference in Nashville last week.
The number of requests is “going up dramatically,” Haslam said, including 22 requests to his office since his inauguration.
Some queries are “blanket requests” for information that can take significant man hours to fill, begging the question of “how to make certain that we’re doing the right thing both by our taxpayers and by people who need information,” Haslam said.
“I don’t think that’s what people pay taxes for,” he said.
According to the Tennessee Public Records Act, “all state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours … be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state.”
State agencies applied the law in different ways in response to requests for documents related to the October midnight raids on Occupy Nashville protesters, according to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The problem is the Haslam administration includes many officials with private-sector backgrounds, who aren’t used to such high levels of interest from the public, said Kent Flanagan, TCOG executive director.
Officials at the TPA and TCOG say the administration has asked to meet with them this spring about crafting standard open records policies.
Haslam is also pushing legislation to keep secret certain information from businesses seeking millions of dollars in economic development grants. Haslam wants to shield corporate financial statements, budgets and ownership information.
“There’s certain things in life that we feel like, for the good of that negotiation, we need to keep to ourselves,” Haslam told the TPA.
Haslam was the only major candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial race who refused to release his tax forms.
After his election, he exempted himself and Cabinet members from a Bredesen-era requirement to disclose the amounts of income from various sources. Those high-ranking officials must still disclose income sources.
Legislators considered tweaking the state’s open meetings laws earlier this year so local officials could discuss business in private if no quorum was present. The idea died before a bill was filed, partly at the behest of House Speaker Beth Harwell. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey disagreed.
“Bottom line is, we want open meetings, we want everything to where you can discuss it,” Ramsey said. “All I’ve ever said is to make sure people don’t get in trouble accidentally for something.”