Governor Wants Standardized State-Agency Open-Records Request Processes, Policies

Gov. Bill Haslam has said there are instances when groups or individuals make sweeping public-records requests that aren’t entirely legitimate.

When it happens, government staff-time and taxpayer resources can be wasted trying to fulfill seemingly gratuitous demands — and it’s a problem the governor says his administration is setting out to address this year.

“It is the public’s right to know, and that’s been firmly established,” Haslam told reporters Monday after speaking at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association in Nashville. “On the other hand, just blanket fishing expeditions that cost the taxpayers’ money, it still takes people’s time and work to go get those. I think there needs to be a way for how we decide what’s legitimate and what’s not there.”

Agencies across state government have varying methods for handling requests for public documents, but that, too, is going to change this year, Haslam said.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is make sure we’re being consistent across state government because we have not been, and every department’s been handling that different,” he said.

Haslam first floated his plan to revise the policy during the Tennessee Press Association’s annual conference in Nashville last month. The Republican governor said there needs to be balance between facilitating the public’s right to know and putting the brakes on unfocused requests for mounds of documents that are costly for public agencies to produce.

When he was running for re-election as mayor, Haslam told the group, the City of Knoxville was inundated with open-ended open-records requests from political operatives trolling for intelligence they could use against him. However, the changes Haslam is currently advocating would apply only to state agencies. Haslam also said during the TPA conference that he thinks journalists nowadays turn to public document requests much sooner in their reporting than they did a decade ago.

The governor’s office has so far met once with representatives of stakeholder interests, including the press association, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Associated Press about how they’d like to see the policy crafted. Additional meetings are expected in the coming weeks and months.

Kent Flanagan, TCOG’s executive director, said that as a matter of general principle “any information request” submitted to a government agency “should be regarded as legitimate.”

Flanagan added, though, that he is so far satisfied with talks with the governor’s staff about establishing uniformity among agencies responding to records requests. He added, “If it seems too broad, (state officials) have a right to tell us, ‘Hey, that’s too broad. Can you narrow that down?’”

“We want to make sure that any such situation is addressed in a manner that doesn’t hurt the agency or hurt the requester,” Flanagan continued.

Other government observers are a little more worried.

“I have a concern that he’s tending to come from a business point of view and would be more inclined to closing records than I would be comfortable with,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a left-leaning nonprofit advocacy group.

Some issues are dicey to make public, Williams admits, like luring businesses to release more insider information in order to help the state gain a better understanding of a business it wants to give taxpayer dollars to, such as the governor is proposing this year.

But entitling government employees to themselves pass judgement on what constitutes a “legitimate” request for public information is problematic, he said.

“A fishing expedition just to be fishing, or to tie somebody up, is not appropriate,” said Williams. “On the other hand, if there’s a suspicion that there’s a dead fish there, maybe you need to go on a fishing expedition.”

The state’s Open Records Act outlines that “all state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours … be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state.”

Since taking office last year the governor’s office has gotten on average fewer than two records requests per month, according to an accounting requested by TNReport of all the open-records requests submitted to the administration.

His office has handled some 25 official queries for public records since his 2011 inauguration, the state reported.

Five of the requests sought details about what went into decisions to arrest Occupy Nashville protesters shortly after their October arrests.

Three requests looked for documents from the Department of Economic and Community Development, which issues tax breaks and incentives to businesses, and another three looked for information from the Department of Safety and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Other requests ranged from information about prisons and death row inmates to the list of people scrubbed from the governor’s daily news digest.

All but two requests came from people representing news outlets.

This week marks Sunshine Week, an annual recognition of the importance of open government.