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Newspapers Back Online Notice Bill

Legal notices like public auctions and meeting announcements would have to be published online, as well as in newspapers, under a bill that is headed to both state House and Senate calendar committees to be scheduled for floor votes.

Newspapers that are eligible to print legal notices would be required to post them on their website and a site maintained by the Tennessee Press Association, starting April 1, 2014, under the amended versions of House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 461. The notices would be published on the Internet for the same period of time notices are published in the newspaper and at no extra cost to the person or business.

The bill is backed by the association, sponsor Sen. Ken Yager said. The Senate bill passed in the State and Local Government Committee he chairs, while the House State Government Committee approved the bill earlier Tuesday morning.

“The reason we’re doing this is we’ve been faced in recent years with multiple attempts to remove public notices from newspapers and put them on government websites exclusively,” the TPA’s Frank Gibson said.

“Fewer than a third of households in Tennessee ever see a government website, but over two-thirds either read the newspaper or the newspaper’s website,” said Gibson, the association’s public policy director. “That combination vehicle is the way to reach the widest audience.”

Ken Yager

Yager, a Republican, told the committee that the bill will not only “put in practice a system that will ensure the widest circulation of legal notices, but most important, legal notices will continue to be published by those institutions that are independent of the government.”

The Harriman representative said he thinks the bill combines the best of both worlds.

“It keeps public notice in places where most people can find them, which promote government transparency and public trust.”

According to Gibson, many, if not most, newspapers currently post public notices on both their own websites and TPA’s statewide aggregate website for no additional charge.

“TPA has 122 newspapers. Only two do not have websites, and they are in the process of building websites now,” Gibson said, adding they will be fully operational months before the bill takes effect.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Lynn’s Ethics Bill Calls for More Disclosure by Lawmakers

Saying more openness is needed on the part of Tennessee policymakers, Rep. Susan Lynn has introduced legislation that would require the disclosure of all real property they own other than their primary home.

The Mt. Juliet Republican’s HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.

“Back in 2006, when we did the ethics reform, we wanted this to be part of the disclosure and simply couldn’t get it done at that time,” said Lynn, who served in the House for eight years before running for state Sen. Mae Beavers’ seat and losing in 2010.

“Leaving the Legislature for two years, like I did, you start thinking about the things you wish you’d done or could have done, and this was one of those things.”

Before the 108th General Assembly session began, Lynn, who chairs the Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee, said she learned of a bill filed by freshman Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston that called for exempting planning commission members from such disclosure.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is not good,’” Lynn said. “I was getting a lot of Tea Party emails, and they were basically indicting all of us for filing that bill.”

Lynn said she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so she called him and asked why he had filed it.

“He said his county mayor asked him to,” she said, adding that after she explained to Calfee the importance of more disclosure, not less, he withdrew his bill and thanked her for calling him.

Lynn’s bill would require the disclosure of the address of the property and the month and year of its acquisition, but not everyone in the General Assembly is in favor of it.

Many have told her that the information is a matter of public record, and that should be sufficient. Her argument is that since it is public record, “What’s wrong with putting it all in one neat, consolidated place to make that disclosure?”

“I’m not feeling a warm breeze right now from the [Local Government] committee,” said Lynn, who postponed a vote on the bill until March 12. “I really feel like I’m standing out there alone. I know it’s the right thing to do, and I hope they will be amenable.”

She said she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement, if it’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.

“I think it’s very important for local government to make this disclosure, especially the planning commission members,” she said. “I think property holdings that one has, especially holdings that they hold for some future opportunity, should be disclosed, [because] maybe they’re in a position to vote on things that will make the opportunity better.”

She said she hopes that it doesn’t come to that, though.

“I hope my colleagues see the big picture. They won’t be in office together forever.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Tennessee Gets ‘B’ For Usefulness of Gov’t Websites

Tennessee landed in the middle of the pack in a new ranking of online transparency – whether public information like contracts, lobbying costs, and meeting minutes were available online.

The state scored 70 percent, or a B, on the 2013 Transparency Report Card, a national study put out by Sunshine Review, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit. That put Tennessee 24th among the states, coming in behind Hawaii but ahead of Alaska.

California, Washington and Illinois topped the list.

Pulling down Tennessee’s overall ranking were school districts, whose websites scored a paltry 51.5%, or C-, on the group’s scale. The state scored a B for its state website, B- for counties’ websites, and C+ for cities’.

TNReport’s Open Government Talk Draws Impressive, Well-Informed Crowd

Press Release from TNReport.com New Service, Nov. 29, 2012:

The “Totally Transparent Pizza Party” hosted by TNReport and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government on Wednesday evening drew a mix of 64 attendees from across the political spectrum.

“It was exciting to see such a diverse and enthusiastic audience turn out for this important discussion,” TNReport.com editor Mark Engler said.

TCOG executive director Kent Flanagan and Elisha Hodge, open-records counsel for the State of Tennessee, joined TNReport’s Trent Seibert for ranging talk on open-government issues in the Volunteer State.

“Public accountability starts with free and open access to information,” said Engler. “Our primary function and goal at TNReport is arming citizens with the tools for getting at the truth of what government is doing, and how tax dollars are being spent. I am tremendously grateful to Kent Flanagan and Elisha Hodge for joining with us to further that mission. I look forward to doing more events like it in the not-so-distant future.”

The event was hosted by Mafiaoza’s Pizzeria & Neighborhood Pub, 2400 12th Ave. S. in Nashville.

Seibert also spoke at the event and supplied a list of online tools for citizen journalists. The links to those tools are below.

The FOIA letter generator

This handy site will allow you to produce a quick letter asking a state, local or federal government entity for the public records you want. It also shows you examples of records that are public at the state and federal level and provides direct links to your state’s open records law.

Tennessee campaign finance search

This state-run site gives you the most complete information about campaign contributions for state-level candidates. In addition to searching, you can also download the information into a spreadsheet for deeper analysis.

Follow the Money

This site allows you to see how money flows through your state. The campaign contributions for elected officials such as state representatives, state senators and governors are showcased here. There is also an analysis of those contributions and much, much more.

Open Secrets

Here is where you will find how money flows through Congress and the White House. There is so much more here, too: This site is a clearinghouse for data and analysis on multiple aspects of money in politics — the independent interest groups flooding politics with outside spending, federal lobbying, Washington’s “revolving door,” federal earmarks and the personal finances of members of Congress, the president and other officials.

Legistorm

Based in Washington, LegiStorm has valuable information on Congress, such as a database of congressional staff salaries and a comprehensive database of all privately financed trips taken by members of Congress, as well as gifts to members of Congress from foreign governments.

Political Party Time

This site collects and categorizes invitations to political fundraising events for members of Congress and the president. You can find out where the fundraisers are and (in some cases) who is expected to attend, often before they happen. You can also view the array of invitations that are e-mailed and faxed by the dozen to lobbyists, political action committee representatives and others around Washington, D.C., and the country. These fundraisers vary from small receptions to lavish getaways — and none are cheap.

Housing and Urban Development Audits

See how well — or not so well — HUD is using tax dollars in your state. Keep up with audits that put a spotlight on waste, fraud and corruption.

Tennessee state auditor

The state auditor takes a hard look at state and local agencies and finds information that is often overlooked by the media. Investigative audits often show waste and fraud. Financial audits can give you detailed information about an agency, school system or city — and can show you how much debt public entities hold and what tax hikes may be on the way.

Stimulus information and stimulus audits

Recovery.gov shows you where stimulus money is being spent and how many jobs have been created. The “accountability” section of the site links to audits of stimulus spending, as well as to lists of organizations that have received stimulus dollars but have not reported how they’ve spent the money.

LM-2, Labor organization reports

The Department of Labor’s website allows users to look up specific labor organizations and their annual financial reports.

Government Attic

Government Attic provides electronic copies of thousands of interesting government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. They include: fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities, fun stuff and government bloopers.

FBI reports

The FBI’s FOIA page provides the form to find out if a deceased individual or a closed case has an associated FBI file. The site also provides hundreds of links to the FBI files of historical figures and events.

Any questions about public records? Contact Trent, Elisha or Kent:

Trent Seibert, phone: 615-669-9501 or email trent@tnreport.com

Elisha Hodge, phone: 615-401-7891 or email open.records@cot.tn.gov

Kent Flanagan, phone: 615-202-2685 or email tncog@comcast.net

TN School Districts Flunk Transparency Review

The school district websites for Memphis, Jackson-Madison County and Sevier County flunked a nonprofit group’s review on financial transparency.

A lack of online budget and contracting information or reports on academic progress contributed to those school district’s ‘F’ grades from Sunshine Review, a group that promotes government transparency. For its report card scores, the group checked websites for information like current and former budgets, phone numbers and email addresses for board members, and audits.

In announcing its grades Tuesday, the group gave a particularly disapproving glare to the Memphis City Schools website, finding “the search function rarely generates relevant results,” and “eventually the website crashed.” The Memphis city schools are set to merge with Shelby County Schools next year.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System emerged as a bright spot in the report. The district earned an A-, the highest grade among Tennesee school districts reviewed, for making readily available current and archived meeting agendas, budget and tax information and graduation rates. For anyone who can’t find the information they need, the steps to filing a public records request were posted.

Sunshine Review gave a D+ grade overall to the 11 school district sites it reviewed. The website said the state as a whole did better, scoring a B in a grade weighted heavily by information available on state government.

View the list of scores and an explanation of how the review was conducted here.

Ripley Police Chief Resigns, Being Paid $25K Through June

The police chief in Ripley will get his regular pay amounting to $25,000 through the end of June, even though he’s been suspended since January and quit Tuesday night, WBBJ Channel 7 in Jackson reported this week.

We first wrote about Chief Landis Garrison in January, when it was unclear why the top cop had been suspended.

That issue is still murky, but the TV station found that Garrison filed a racial discrimination claim against the city a few days after his suspension.

City officials were set to discuss the findings of an investigation into Garrison the day he quit, but now the city’s attorney is refusing to release the investigation report. Attorney Michael Hill “said he will, out of respect for Garrison, not release what his investigation found.”

Missing from his comments is anything about respect for the taxpayers in Ripley, on the hook for that $25,000 bill with little explanation as to why they’re paying it — or for that matter, what the city is relying on in state law to withhold the report produced with public dollars on public time.

“We’re the public, this is our town, and with any town, we need to know the problems,” one resident told Channel 7. Hear, hear.

TN No Longer an Openness Leader on Financial Disclosures

Advocates for open government in Tennessee are expressing concern about whether Gov. Bill Haslam’s executive order relaxing income disclosure rules portends similar steps away from transparency, but there seems to be little out-and-out outrage over the governor’s move.

“The only thing that bothers me about the executive order is the tone that it sets and the signal that it might send,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “He’s not rolling back a law.”

Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause in Tennessee, had a similar reaction.

“I hope it’s not an indication of how we’re going to go from here, and I’d like to think it’s not,” Williams said. “But it’s just sad that his very first executive order, just a day or so after being sworn in, he takes a significant step backward.”

One fascinating aspect of the reaction, advocates for openness in government have said, is that the more demanding executive order that Phil Bredesen, Haslam’s predecessor, set as governor went largely unnoticed — until Haslam’s order loosened the requirements.

After being sworn in as the state’s 49th governor Jan. 15, Haslam’s first executive order was to declare that members of the executive branch must follow state law on disclosure, which brings the administration in line with the Legislature. The order means key administration officials including Cabinet members will have to divulge the sources of outside income but not the specific amounts they make. The step rolls back a Bredesen order, which called for disclosure of the amounts.

“Bredesen, to his credit, set a tone of openness by issuing that executive order in the first place,” Gibson said. “So I can’t slam him (Haslam) for doing it, because he’s basically doing what the law is for the Legislature.

“The thing that Bredesen did was far more disclosure than what Congress is required to do. Congress has to report the value of their investments in categories, from $50,000 to half a million dollars, and half a million dollars to a million, and a million to 5 million. So even members of Congress don’t have to report what their actual income is.”

Williams noted that the Haslam step presents a glaring change.

“It sticks out like a sore thumb at being a difference from what had been the precedent,” Williams said. “He (Haslam) is correct that the law doesn’t require it, but it’s kind of one of those things, once you’ve set the precedent, it’s definitely a step backward to not continue it.”

Haslam’s order caught the attention of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, and its policy director, John Wonderlich, called the decision a “stunning disrespect for the role disclosure plays in democracy.”

“Governor Haslam’s executive order flouts the public trust embodied in that disclosure system, and places his personal and political concerns over the public interest and integrity of the very system he was elected to lead,” Wonderlich wrote.

A recurring refrain, however, is a call for a middle-of-the-road approach that would require ranges of income be reported, rather than none.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit research group, falls into that category.

“I guess my solution is a compromise, which is what we have in California and which I believe is recommended, which is ranges,” said Stern. “Over a thousand dollars. Over $10,000, over $100,000, over $1 million, and at that point who cares? You should have an idea.”

“We want to know what the conflict is and approximately if it’s a big conflict or a little conflict, but we don’t need to know the exact amount of the conflict,” added Stern, whose organization describes itself as promoting “innovative political and media solutions to help individuals participate more effectively in their communities and governments.”

Issue of Income Prominent in Gov’s Race

Common Cause’s Williams said the potential for conflict should be closely watched for department heads such as those in Economic and Community Development and Revenue, not because he has concerns specific to Haslam’s choices for those jobs but because of the nature of the positions.

Haslam named Bill Hagerty, founder and managing director of Hagerty Peterson & Co., a merchant bank and private equity firm, to the post of Economic and Community Development commissioner. Haslam picked Richard Roberts, director of Miller Industries, which makes towing and recovery vehicles, to head the Department of Revenue.

The issue of Haslam’s personal income rose prominently in the 2010 governor’s race, with opponents among Democrats and Republicans insisting that Haslam’s income from his family’s Pilot Corp. presented a conflict of interest. Ironically, one of Haslam’s harshest critics was his current commissioner of Safety, Bill Gibbons.

Gibbons ran against Haslam for the Republican nomination. He dropped out early but not before he proposed a plan for openness in government.

Gibbons, previously the Shelby County district attorney general, hit Haslam hard on the issue during the campaign and said every time the state widens a highway with a lot of commercial traffic Pilot has an interest with its truck stops. He said voters couldn’t know if it was a big conflict or a small conflict because Haslam would not reveal his income from Pilot. Haslam did divulge his income from investments outside Pilot Corp.

Haslam has also announced a blind trust for his holdings, but the trust will not include Pilot holdings or a real estate investment he has outside the state.

Among candidate Gibbons’ detailed plans for openness was a strengthening of disclosure laws by moving beyond the requirement of candidates and officeholders to disclose only the sources of income and require reporting of the amount of income from each source.

An effort to reach Gibbons this week for comment on Haslam’s executive order was unsuccessful.

Haslam consistently refused during the campaign to divulge the amount of his income from Pilot, as first requested by a consortium of the state’s largest newspapers. He reasoned that Tennesseans knew that his family owned Pilot and therefore knew all they needed to know. He has now extended that same principle to other members of his administration, and Haslam used the same consistent line of explanation when he addressed the executive order in a recent press conference as governor.

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey reiterated the explanation Haslam has given going back to the campaign.

“To the best of my knowledge the executive order was a follow-up to what he said all over this state to the people of Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think the executive order was one period, one comma, different from what he had said for months.”

Haslam Order In Line With Other States’ Rules

Ramsey said to his knowledge there was no survey of what is done in other states to influence the decision.

There is little to suggest Haslam’s order is out of line with other states, although that doesn’t translate into a sparkling record on public disclosure.

The Center for Public Integrity, a journalistic research organization in Washington that promotes improving government openness and accountability, issued a report in 2009 in which Tennessee was among 20 states given a grade of “F” for its disclosure laws. Tennessee was given 57.5 points out of a possible 100, ranking 34th among the 50 states. Only Louisiana, Washington and Hawaii received a grade of “A.”

The report was an update to a report by the Center for Public Integrity issued in 2007. Tennessee received an “F” in that report as well.

Like all the surveys reviewed by TNReport, though, the center’s study focused on laws, not executive orders by governors.

Charts compiled by the Center for Ethics in Government for the National Conference of State Legislatures show a broad range of requirements on disclosure, with several states requiring reporting based on ranges of income.

The Center for Ethics in Government does not summarize its findings like the Center for Public Integrity, but Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center, said, “I would think that most states do not require disclosure of the actual amount of income, just the source.”

Stern, the Los Angeles researcher, said he believes the work done by the Center for Public Integrity is a good measuring stick and that there has been “not much change at all” since the report was released.

The written report in 2007 did address more closely how state requirements affect governors than the more recent report.

“Requiring them to disclose their private financial ties could reveal possible conflicts of interest,” the 2007 report said. Only Washington received a grade of “A” in that report.

The 2007 study made specific mention that Bredesen, who was wealthy before his election, did not take a paycheck as governor, which put him in the company of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Then-Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey drew a salary of $1 a year, the report noted. Haslam, like Bredesen, is not accepting a paycheck from the state.

The 2009 report noted that two southern states — Louisiana and Mississippi — made the biggest improvements since the earlier study, and it pointed to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pushing through an ethics reform package that bolstered requirements for all lawmakers to report their financial interests. That action, the report said, led Louisiana to the top spot in its rankings, with 94.5 points out of 100 in the center’s 43-question survey.