Column by Kent Flanagan, Executive Director of the TN Coalition for Open Government; March 12, 2013:
Secrecy is not the answer. Secrecy will not solve our state’s problems. Instead, secrecy will only keep from Tennesseans the information they need to make informed decisions at the ballot box and to remain informed citizens.
Whether it is details about what the Department of Children’s Services has done to keep the most vulnerable children in our state from harm or, worst, death, Tennesseans need to know.
Or if it’s a new system of evaluating how well teachers in Tennessee’s public schools are performing, Tennesseans need to know.
Or if making public records of gun carry permits confidential will make the large majority of Tennesseans more safe in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, Tennesseans need to know.
In the first example, the public finally knows that DCS has used state laws and other tactics to delay release what should be public information about the circumstances in which more than 200 children died or nearly died since 2009.
But it took a costly lawsuit filed by a coalition of media and open government advocates to force DCS to produce information, which has been further delayed by questionable tactics by DCS staff and attorneys.
In the case of the teacher evaluation system, lawmakers passed legislation into law making information about the evaluations confidential, because as one lawmaker said, school administrators would be more honest in their evaluations if they’re not made public.
A few months later, a national report by the Bellwether Education Partners graded Tennessee down in part because the public is not allowed to see teacher evaluations.
Now, during the current legislative session, legislators will vote on legislation that would close public access to the Department of Safety’s gun permit database. This came as a direct result of the publication of details of a similar database in New York shortly after the horrific massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
So, why does this database need to be secret for roughly 350,000 gun permit owners who represent about 5 percent of the state’s population? A variety of answers have been offered, most of which include the right to privacy of gun owners.
Some fear that burglars will access the database for information so they can steal weapons from home of permit holders. But the Tennessee database has been open to the public since 1996 and there is no evidence that burglars have taken advantage of it. In fact, some gun owners want criminals to know they are armed as a deterrent.
So why was the public database created in the first place?
Before the Department of Safety was tasked with creating and maintaining the gun carry permit information, such permits were issued by sheriff’s offices in all 95 counties. And in a significant number of cases, gun permits were given as political favors without regard to safety training or background checks. And the permits were kept secret as a rule.
The current legislation in Tennessee to close gun permit records is a direct reaction to the newspaper publication of names, addresses in New York. It was legal since the information was a matter of public record, but was it wise? Probably not, considering that the New York General Assembly subsequently closed the records.
Similar legislation has also passed in Mississippi and Virginia.
But the impulse to “solve” problems through secrecy is in itself dangerous.
This legislation is part of a very troubling trend to deny public access to more and more public records. Since the passage of the Tennessee Public Records Act of 1957, more than 350 exceptions have been created through legislative action.
Who gains from closing public records? Generally, special interests.
Too many lawmakers seem to think that government information belongs to them to do with as they will, rather than to the public. With each successive exception to the Public Records Act, citizens are less able to monitor what their elected “servants of the people” and their fellow citizens are doing.
Just witness the ongoing story of the Department of Children’s Service or the continuing saga of confidential teacher evaluations as examples of losing freedom of information gradually.
And, finally, consider the longstanding motto of the Johnson City Press: “What the people don’t know will hurt them.”
Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached by phone at (615) 957-2825 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.