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Property Disclosure Requirement for Lawmakers Hits Snag

An ethics bill requiring Tennessee policymakers to disclose all real property they own other than their primary home has hit a snag this year, and the bill sponsor said she doesn’t expect it to pass.

Rep. Susan Lynn said she would still like to get the bill back in committee this year as a thermometer test.

Susan Lynn

“I perceive that a lot of members think that it’s a good idea, but I perceive also that a lot of members strongly oppose it,” the Mt. Juliet Republican said. “So it may need a little bit more time to become more apparent to the members as to why it’s important.”

Originally assigned to the House Local Government Committee, HB1063 was moved back to the speaker’s desk after Lynn failed to appear on two separate occasions to present her bill. However, Chairman Matthew Hill made a procedural error by invoking Rule 13, meant to kick in after the sponsor fails to appear for a third time.

To get the bill back on track, the House clerk’s office told Lynn she will have to see Rep. Joe Carr, chairman of the Local Government subcommittee.

“I need to call the clerk’s office to find out why I need to talk to the subcommittee chair, “ Lynn told TNReport.com. “I think it was a mistake we’re going to try and get worked out.”

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.

Earlier in March, Lynn told TNReport.com that she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement if that’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.”

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, agrees that the bill “offers a lot for citizens who don’t have the advantage of public office.”

“I think it’s critical for this legislation, or anything similar to it, to be enacted, simply to level the playing field because of economics,” said Flanagan, the former state bureau chief for The Associated Press.

During public discussion of a proposed development, if “everyone knows who owns property and where that property is located, then everyone knows where everyone stands. When people own property and don’t disclose it, I think that’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Still, the former newspaper editor doesn’t hold out high hopes for the bill’s passage.

“I think in terms of this legislation, the chances of it passing are probably slim with the legislator exemption,” Flanagan said. “If they’re not exempt, I don’t think it has a chance of passing.”

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

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

Haslam Yet to Reconsider Opening Up Secret Meeting Schedule

Gov. Bill Haslam vowed he and his staff would re-evaluate whether they should keep the governor’s meeting schedule secret, but he says he hasn’t gotten that far yet.

“We really hadn’t had that discussion again, and we will, in terms of looking at that,” Haslam told reporters Friday before a ribbon cutting at Saks distribution center in La Vergne.

Haslam’s administration rejected a TNReport request for the governor’s calendar dating back to his 2011 inauguration, citing “deliberative process privilege,” a common law provision not written into state code and meant to keep internal discussions private.

Haslam said his communications director, Alexia Poe, is looking into public records issues, but he did not say when he expected his administration would decide whether to reverse its decision.

“I don’t know of anything new on the Governor’s schedule,” Poe said over email. “It is my understanding we’re consistent with how Governor Bredesen handled similar requests.”

One advocate for greater government transparency says the governor should open up his past meeting schedule anyway.

“When Tennesseans can see his planner, it no longer becomes a big deal to opponents who thinks the governor may be up to no good and provides his supporters with documentation of the good faith effort he is making as the state’s highest elected official,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

While Flanagan said he generally trusts this governor, keeping the schedule secret sets a bad precedent for when a public official does violate the public trust.

Haslam said earlier this year his staff would also work with other agencies to standardize how to handle requests for public records. He also said he wants to guard against what he described as “fishing expeditions” by reporters or political campaigns asking for a broad range of documents.

Poe said she was working on those changes and will likely have more details in the upcoming weeks.

Haslam Administration Keeps Schedule-Planner Under Wraps

Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t too keen on letting Tennesseans in on who he’s meeting behind closed doors.

“There’s just a lot of discussions that we have, that any governor needs to have, as part of the decision-making process that we go through on so many different issues,” the governor said recently.

The administration rejected a request from TNReport in July to review or obtain copies of the governor’s calendar-scheduling planner dating back to his Jan. 15, 2010, inauguration through June 30, 2012.

Haslam’s office said his schedule falls under the protection of “deliberative process privilege.” The exception under common law allows for government secrecy in instances of communications, opinions and recommendations on policy issues.

However, the state government’s own open-records advocate, Elisha Hodge, says there’s no precedent under this exception in Tennessee to keep the governor’s calendar hidden from public view.

“In Tennessee, the deliberative process privilege has been discussed in a number of public records cases,” but never in the context of public officials’ calendars, said Hodge.

In the cases the judiciary did review, “the courts have never found the privilege to be applicable, based upon specific records that were at issue in the cases.”

Information like what’s on the governor’s schedule should be public, said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

“I don’t want to know when he brushes his teeth, and I don’t want to know when he goes to bed,” Flanagan said. “But when he’s acting in the official capacity for the state of Tennessee, the people of Tennessee need to see how he’s performing his duties.”

The only way to challenge the administration’s stance would be to sue the administration and take the governor to court, which is a costly option.

Haslam has something of a mixed history with government transparency since assuming the state’s highest office.

In his second executive order, which set ethics training requirements for his cabinet members, the governor said that “this Administration intends to set a high standard for openness, transparency and accountability.”

“It is the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable,” his executive order declared.

But his staff is now looking to standardize how agency officials respond to public requests for information, with an eye toward avoiding requests for public documents that amount to “fishing expeditions” that cost time and money to assemble.

His office also moved to let commissioners keep secret how much they earn from their various sources of income, and he advocated in favor of ensuring that companies winning millions of dollars worth of state economic development awards can keep their lists of business owners out of the public eye.

Past governors assented to varying levels of letting the public review their calendars, said Larry Daughtrey, a retired Capitol Hill reporter for the Tennessean. Daughtrey contrasted the general practice with the relative openness of Gov. Ned McWherter, who led the state from 1987 to 1995.

“With McWherter, you could get his meeting schedule, but you had to go to the press office and ask to see it. You could also walk into any meeting you wanted in the governor’s office,” he said. “I don’t remember any other governor who would let you see the meeting schedule, at least with any regularity.”

Haslam’s administration puts out a weekly public schedule, which includes certain public events reporters are invited to. Gov. Don Sundquist did much the same, said Beth Fortune, who was Sundquist’s press secretary. Sundquist served from 1995 to 2003.

“We issued a weekly calendar of Gov. Sundquist’s public events, not private meetings. Sometimes, we would open private meetings to the press, if requested, and depending upon the topic of the meeting and its participants,” she said via email.

Once their terms are over, governors hand over to the public hundreds of boxes worth of correspondence, records and scheduling information. The latest records in state archives are from the Sundquist administration and reveal flight schedules and appointments with various lawmakers and interest groups.

Records for Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was termed out of office in 2011, are still being processed into microfilm.

Governors in some other states, including the notoriously corrupt Illinois, allow their meeting schedules to be made public, including facts like who they met with, where and when. But officials there redact information on certain meetings.

Gov. Haslam offered that his administration may “re-evaluate” opening up his meeting schedule, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I can’t say it’s not a decision we won’t revisit as we’re here a little longer and get used to the different decisions and impacts that that might make. I think we just felt like coming out of the box, that there was a need just to protect that deliberative process for now,” Haslam told TNReport in an interview last month.

He said closing off his calendar now doesn’t mean the public is getting locked out of answers as to why certain decisions are made.

“(Citizens) really want to know where are you, what did you decide and tell me why you decided that,” said the governor. “And I think we do owe answers like that — whether it be issues we’re facing on health care issues, or whatever it is — to say here’s where we are, and here’s why we think what we do.”

ECD Drafting ‘Clawback’ Clauses for Subsidy Agreements

A state agency that doles out millions in taxpayer dollars to businesses promising to make work for struggling Tennesseans is formulating procedures to take money back from companies that don’t deliver the good jobs.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is working out details of a “clawback” provision it plans to insert into FastTrack grant agreements, according to the agency’s communications director, Clint Brewer.

“It’s not the issue that businesses haven’t done what they said they’re going to do. The issue is we want to be following the best practices we can,” said Brewer, assistant ECD commissioner. “To do that, we have to be the best stewards of public money we can be.”

Most ECD contracts currently don’t include a clawback provision, said Brewer. The lack of such recourse was at one time a particularly frustrating state of affairs to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican. Ramsey criticized the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for making deals like $101 million in handouts to Electrolux for hinting at the creation of 1,250 jobs, even though the formal arrangement explicitly disallowed state officials from trying to recoup taxpayer resources if the company failed to produce.

Brewer said the department is now “on the brink of beginning to use that language in a new standard FastTrack contract,” but wouldn’t say specifically when the agency would start.

“It has taken us the better part of the last 18 months – obviously with a lot of other things going on – to work through the process of determining what legal precedent and black letter law would allow,” he said.

Making businesses promise to give taxpayers back some of their money should not only be required, but be publicly disclosed, said Dick Williams, with Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a pro-income tax coalition of progressive activists and public-sector union groups.

“If something doesn’t work out, then the taxpayers ought to get back some, if not all, of the money they gave them,” Williams said. “Certainly, we shouldn’t assume they’ll all be successful.”

This year, lawmakers agreed to more than double the FastTrack program to $80 million. Since 2006, the state has allotted an average of $38.5 million in tax dollars annually to the FastTrack program.

The program offers businesses grants or loans for expenses like job training, infrastructure improvement, equipment, and temporary office space related to relocation or expansion. The taxpayer money is funneled through local governments or their economic development branches to issue to companies.

Changing how grant contracts are written is one of a handful of changes economic development officials are talking about making this year.

Last week, the department loaded agency statistics and records online in an attempt to increase accessibility to government documents, with plans to add a searchable database and other features by the time legislators are back on Capitol Hill next year.

The new “Open ECD” website lists business and incentives information for state-issued FastTrack grants, tax incentives, TNInvestco projects and community block grants — and how many jobs the money has reportedly created.

None of the information is new, says Brewer, but it’s now accessible without having to file open records requests to look at them, “so you can see on the back end how those jobs have stood up.”

Open government advocates generally applaud the effort to make information easier for the public to get to, but warn that the website shouldn’t be a substitute for agencies filling specific open records requests.

“That’s commendable as long as that does not become a substitute for normal, routine public records requests,” said Frank Gibson, director of public policy for the Tennessee Press Association.

“My big concern about them is at some point (when) you make a public records request, they’ll say it’s on their website. But is all the information you’re asking about on their website?” he said.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Kent Flanagan calls the site “a great starting point,” but says he’s waiting to see how good the department is at updating people who sign up for alerts when ECD documents are posted.

“It’s not about what happened three months ago. It’s about what happened this morning,” he said.

Transparency in Tennessee: Assessing the 107th General Assembly

Commentary by Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, May 3, 2012:

Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.

The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.

Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the “state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner.”

“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”

Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.

Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.

Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.

On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.

The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.

Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists’ names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.

To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.