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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.”

TN Gets ‘C’ on Anti-Corruption Report Card

When it comes to integrity and openness in state governments, Tennessee is among the tallest of the leprechauns.

The state earned a 76, good enough for a C in a new national study gauging each state’s risk of corruption conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and two other nonprofit groups. Not one state earned an A. But despite the report’s criticism of the state for a weak ethics commission and secretive budget talks, Tennessee still ranked 8th among the 50 states.

The study measured the states in various categories relating to “transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms.”

“High scores for Tennessee’s pension fund and auditing process are offset by weak campaign finance laws, a toothless ethics commission, and a secret redistricting process,” according to a summary of the state’s score.

The state received an F for lack of openness in redistricting and a D- for Ethics Enforcement Agencies — a problem that TNReport explored in August.

The report notes the push for more stringent ethics legislation after the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz sting operation in 2005, but questions the effectiveness of the Tennessee Ethics Commission created as a result.

The report also gives special attention to the debate about judicial accountability and corporate money in politics.

 

Sunshine Bills Slow Going in General Assembly

While lawmakers juggle issues like gun rights, the state budget and teaching about homosexuality in Tennessee schools, they’re also talking about whether and how to shine more light on the inner workings of state government.

“The idea of transparency is sometimes less transparency than opaque. If you can’t see through it, it’s not transparent,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Here’s the status update on some prominent open government bills:

ECD Secrecy, SB2207/HB2345: The sexiest transparency issue this year is a move allowing the Department of Economic Development to ask for, then make secret, insider details about businesses seeking government handouts. The administration says the extra info will help them make better decisions, but the bill’s hit a major snag. Lawmakers are now behind the scenes working out the sticking point: whether businesses should have to publicly reveal the owners of the company getting thousands to millions of taxpayers dollars. There’s been no movement on that issue for weeks, and so far, officials say there’s nothing new to report.

Phoning It In, SB2723/HB2883: This measure would allow local school board members to phone in their attendance by “attending” and voting at meetings electronically if they’re out of town for work, a family emergency or military service. The board still needs a quorum physically present to conduct business. This passed the Senate 26-6, but the issue got caught up in the House after lawmakers argued other boards will want to do the same. Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, says he’s OK with this bill. “Anything they do in the open, we’re for. The alternative is a lot worse,” he said. The House will pick it up again March 22.

Bill Authors Anonymous, SB3667/HB2301: The minority party wants lawmakers to point out bills handed to them from outside interest groups. While the proposed “Influence Disclosure Act” would apply to both parties, the Republicans quickly killed the bill in a House subcommittee earlier this month. “This is a bad bill … horrible bill, really,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Memphis, who sits on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s board of directors, which has handed Tennessee lawmakers a handful of controversial bills in the last few years. “I know what it’s getting back at. It’s getting back at ALEC, that’s what it’s designed to do,” he said before voting against it.

Governments on the Interwebs, SB2832/HB3328: This one would require county, city and school districts to post loads of public documents and information on their websites. The move also would pave the way to publishing public notices on websites rather than in local newspapers. While the measure would increase government transparency, it has a $10 million price tag to those local governments. That includes the cost to develop websites for 167 government bodies that have yet to build a website of their own. “This is the first year that we’ve had bills to open things up. It’s sort of a new experience for us,” Gibson said. Lawmakers have pushed this bill until the last meeting of State and Local Government committee in both houses.

Virtual Pinboard, SB3430/HB3797: There’s a slow push to move a variety of public notices off newspaper pages and onto government websites. Lawmakers studied the issue last year, but it hasn’t moved much this spring. Instead, lawmakers thought about easing into posting notices online by starting simply with announcements about sunset hearings on professional oversight boards. If passed, those notices would be posted to the state Comptroller’s and the General Assembly’s website, but the sponsors to that bill have taken it off notice.

GOP Tops Talk of ECD Confidentiality Balancing Act

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say they’re still working out the details of a stalled piece of legislation that would keep secret certain information collected from businesses seeking millions in tax incentives from the state.

The Haslam administration-backed bill, SB2207, would expand the amount of due diligence information – such as corporate financial statements and ownership information – the state receives, but also keep that information confidential.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Thursday that the lingering issue is mitigating the concerns of open-government advocates as well as business interests.

“Where is that balance?” he said. “That sweet spot, to make sure that we get the information that we’re supposed to get and need to get and should get – and some of it should be confidential, because of proprietary information – yet what should not have to be confidential.”

“This is all up in the air, right now, is the bottom line,” he added.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said her chamber will take action on the bill next week, likely after the Senate. Like Ramsey, she said the issue is finding balance.

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.

Public Account + Personal E-mail = Public Record?

If a public employee sends a personal e-mail via his public account, is that message a public record?

That’s the question Hamilton County officials are grappling with, after a county employee was found to be operating a side business using his public e-mail account.

The county attorney appears to be battening down the hatches after that embarrassment and has refused the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘s subsequent request for e-mail records, the newspaper reported over the weekend.

Advocates of transparent government tend to favor disclosure when it comes to e-mail records. The head of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, for example, believes “that the law dealing with e-mails sent to and from public computers shows the Legislature clearly intended for them to be public records,” the paper says.

But officials don’t seem to be in agreement, questioning whether all e-mails including those sent to him are public. They’re suggesting the General Assembly clarify the law.

Names of Applicants for Director Job Posting Released Only After Newspaper Sues County

It would seem sort of strange that a high-profile news outlet — or,  for that matter, any ordinary citizen — would have to call in the hired legal guns to convince government officials to release something as basic as the names of people applying for a department-level director’s job.

But that’s just what’s happened in Sullivan County, where the Kingsport Publishing Corp., which owns the Kingsport Times-News, asked a court to force Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey to release the names of applicants for county EMS director.

Godsey, who had previously refused to release the names, has relented, the newspaper reports today.

AARP Rep Joining State Comptroller’s ‘Sunshine’ Committee for Open Govt.

Press Release from AARP Tennessee, July 2, 2010:

Governor signs bill adding AARP representative to Open Government Committee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — AARP will help bring “Sunshine” into Tennessee by joining a group that advises government agencies on provisions of the law requiring them to conduct business publicly.

Gov. Phil Bredesen signed legislation this week adding an AARP representative to the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Open Government. The committee works under the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel, which advises agencies on the state “Sunshine Law.” The law says in part that “the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open government, said he was pleased that lawmakers agreed to add a representative of AARP, a non-partisan membership organization representing more than 600,000 50+ Tennesseans.

“Tennessee’s open records and public meetings laws were enacted to provide the transparency citizens need to participate in the operation of their government,” Gibson said. “It’s appropriate that the legislature recognized that by adding AARP to represent that public interest on the Advisory Committee.”

Comptroller Justin Wilson will choose someone for the four-year term from three names that will be submitted. “AARP believes it is important for all Tennesseans to see, hear, and understand the work of our elected officials. We are honored to join the League of Women Voters and Common Cause in representing the interests of citizens across this state on this important committee,” said AARP Tennessee Advocacy Director Patrick Willard.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville and Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, was approved unanimously last month. It also adds representatives from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriffs Association, expanding the committee to 14 members.

Legislature Approves Campaign Finance Transparency Bill

Press Release from Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson; June 9, 2010:

Corporations Will be Required to Disclose Expenditures

NASHVILLE – A bill sponsored by State Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) requiring corporations to publicly disclose political financial contributions received final approval in the House on Tuesday.

“I’m proud that members of both parties came together and agreed that we need greater openness in our political system,” Finney said. “This legislation levels the playing field and ensures that anyone can find out how much corporations are spending on politics.”

The bill (Senate Bill 3198) will make corporations play by the same rules as political action committees and labor unions in publicly disclosing their political donations for independent expenditures.

Independent expenditures advocate or argue against a particular candidate without the consent of any other candidate. Current law prohibits direct contributions from corporations to candidates.

The legislation comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that it was unconstitutional to limit corporate independent expenditures. The state attorney general later opined that, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, corporations could potentially keep such spending secret. Finney’s bill closes that loophole.

“When it comes to politics and money, there’s no room for secrecy,” Finney said. “Tennesseans have a right to know when corporations are spending money on politics instead of creating jobs for our citizens.”

The bill will now go to Gov. Phil Bredesen for his signature.

Gibbons Pushing Open Gov’t Agenda

Forcing public officials to release their personal financial records may be an intrusion of privacy, but it’s necessary if voters are to get an accurate picture of their backgrounds and business interests, said GOP candidate for governor Bill Gibbons.

Currently the district attorney for Shelby County, Gibbons wants to mandate that people in public office make more of their financial dealings open to citizen review. He said he plans to publish his own federal income tax returns for 2009 soon.

“When you think about it, there’s no more reliable, trustworthy way for the public to know whether or not we have any conflicts of interest, and the scope of those conflicts, as a result of our income and investments,” Gibbons said.

During a press conference in downtown Nashville Thursday afternoon, Gibbons continued to hammer on cross-state political rival Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, also a GOP gubernatorial candidate, for not being more forthright in releasing financial information, particularly the financial stake he has in the Haslam family-owned Pilot Corp. fuel company and chain of Pilot Travel Centers. (See video below.)

Gibbons released five years worth of federal income tax returns last fall after a request for financial data from Tennessee’s largest newspapers.

Gibbons and his wife, a federal judge, reportedly earned just above $300,000 for the past three years, mostly from their government jobs, and have paid about $62,000 a year in federal income taxes.

The Memphis Republican said he’ll push several other open government initiatives if elected governor, such as requiring public officials to disclose how much money they’ve received from financial interests along with how much they have in various investments. The law currently only requires lawmakers to disclose the sources of those dollars.

Gibbons promised also to:

  • hold public budget meetings with state agencies when discussing budget requests
  • change the formula used when governments charge for public documents
  • reestablish as many as six regional governor’s field offices throughout the state
  • pin down lawmakers on each significant vote they take in the General Assembly including procedural action and committee votes.

The general primary election is Aug. 5. Gibbons is one of several GOP hopefuls, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Haslam.