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.”