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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

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.

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NewsTracker

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’.

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Education Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

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.