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Press Releases

Senate OK’s Proposal to Allow Online Posting of Public Notices

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; March 14, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The State Senate approved legislation today requiring newspapers that print public notices to post them on the Internet. Senate Bill 461, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is supported by the Tennessee Press Association.

Action on the bill was taken during “Sunshine Week,” an annual time to highlight the importance of maintaining open government nationwide. Yager said the legislation recognizes the growing use of the Internet as a source of information, while preserving the integrity of using an independent agency for public notice by newspapers of general circulation.

Current law requires public notices be given on a variety of matters of importance to the public, including government meetings, bid announcements, notice of parental termination, foreclosure notices, public sale of private property, back tax notices, estate notices and zoning changes, to name a few. Local governments, looking for ways to reduce expenditures have suggested they can save money by posting notices on their websites rather than posting them in a local newspaper.

“My experience in local government gives me a greater appreciation of the importance of this issue,” said Yager, who served as Roane County Executive for 24 years before being elected to the State Senate. “Using an independent agency, the local newspaper, builds integrity in the process. To give even the appearance of manipulating mandatory public notices, tarnishes the reputation of government because it undermines the concept of independence and transparency.”

In addition, the legislation calls for the newspapers to post public notices on a central statewide website. Every newspaper that publishes public notices must post on their website homepage a link to the public notice section and another link to the Tennessee Press Association’s statewide repository website.

“This bill combines the best of both worlds. It keeps public notices in places where more people can find them by ensuring the widest distribution,” said Senator Yager. “This measure comes with no extra costs to taxpayers, and promotes government transparency, efficiency and public trust. I am pleased that it has been approved by the full Senate and honored for its passage during a week that embraces openness in government.”

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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.

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Featured News Transparency and Elections

Online Transparency Not Advanced Enough, Say TN Open Gov’t Advocates

The State of Tennessee is lately booting up new technologies designed in theory to ease the public’s often wearisome interactions with government bureaucracies.

But genuine progress toward making government more transparent to taxpayers is actually pretty slow going, according to groups that promote easy access to public information.

The governor announced moves to give taxpayers access to state construction and traffic tie-up data on their smartphones this fall and just finished a massive overhaul of the state’s website. But various open government groups give Tennessee’s website grades ranging from a “B” overall, to a “C+” for transparency of the state budget process to a “D-” for online access to government spending data.

“The searchability still leaves a lot to be desired,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a former newsman with The Associated Press. Flanagan said it’s difficult for the average citizen to find what they’re looking for. “Unless they know the quirks for looking up legislation and bills, they can get frustrated very easily.”

At the Tennessee Digital Government Summit in Nashville Tuesday, the governor boasted about having assembled a team of “talented, experienced professionals in the state, looking at ways to increase effectiveness in the IT process.”

Meanwhile, the state is evaluating changes to the way driver service centers manage information, creating a portal to better direct people seeking occupational licenses and improving the state website’s search engine, the governor said.

“If you’re providing a product, whether you’re a dry cleaner, a restaurant, a government, a hospital, whatever, it’s all about making it simpler for the customer. And that’s what we’re trying to do in so many of our processes,” said Haslam.

Earlier this year, the governor’s office said it was working on updating the content and functionality of the state’s Open Government website. But so far, the administration hasn’t set a timeline for its rollout, said spokesman Dave Smith.

He says the governor’s office is also working on standardizing how the state responds to requests for open records, an issue Haslam has said can be abused by reporters or political operatives going on “fishing expeditions” for stacks of public records. Those new rules are due out this summer, Smith said.

Open government advocates say they’d like the state to ensure government makes it easy for citizens to review government records and determine how decisions are made.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank. Owen said the Center was charged over $1,000 by the state to fill an open records request. “If it’s a challenge for us, you can forget about average citizens being able to obtain public records. That really needs to change.”

These are documents the public needs to be able to see to examine how the proverbial sausage is being made, said Flanagan, adding that “most people don’t want to get that close. Most people just want to sit down and eat the sausage.”

“That’s all part of what those of us who have a keen interest in open government are looking for. How much can you as a citizen, a taxpayer, a voter, see?” he said.

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TN Gets ‘D Minus’ for Online Access to Gov’t Spending

Tennessee ranks among the worst states in the nation for sharing state spending documents online, but slightly redeems itself by offering up salary info about its highest-paid workers, according to a recent study.

The Volunteer State’s “D minus” for providing online access to government spending data is the lowest among all but one of its neighboring states, totalling 51 of a possible 100 points, according to the Following the Money 2012 report from the U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. Tennessee tied with Vermont to come out ahead of only 10 states in the rankings.

But Tennessee leads the pack in providing salary information for state employees online, including a searchable database where users can sort incomes by agency or focus in on individual agency heads.

The governor’s office says there’s always room for improvement.

“The administration has been looking at possible upgrades to our transparency site both from a content standpoint and an IT/functionality standpoint, but that takes time if we’re going to get it right,” Gov. Bill Haslam’s spokesman Dave Smith said in an emailed response.

The study examined the state’s open government web page, assigning it a 0 out of 10 on all these measures:

  • Ability to search online for expenditures by contractor or vendor name
  • Ability to search expenditures by type of service or item purchased either using a keyword search or selecting from a list of categories
  • Providing information on tax expenditures
  • Posting specific information or copies of state contracts.

Tennessee got 4 out of 10 points for providing information about economic development expenditures and grants.

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News Transparency and Elections

Costs of ‘Blanket Requests’ for Public Information Concerning to Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam says it may be time to reset the state’s policy for handling requests for public documents.

Haslam’s administration is examining how each department handles requests for public records, saying the state needs to standardize how it responds and charges for the labor and time to provide records.

“A lot of times I see open records requests that I think 10 years ago, the reporter was doing a lot of legwork on his own before he ever asked the open records request,” Haslam told the Tennessee Press Association conference in Nashville last week.

The number of requests is “going up dramatically,” Haslam said, including 22 requests to his office since his inauguration.

Some queries are “blanket requests” for information that can take significant man hours to fill, begging the question of “how to make certain that we’re doing the right thing both by our taxpayers and by people who need information,” Haslam said.

“I don’t think that’s what people pay taxes for,” he said.

According to the Tennessee Public Records Act, “all state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours … be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state.”

State agencies applied the law in different ways in response to requests for documents related to the October midnight raids on Occupy Nashville protesters, according to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The problem is the Haslam administration includes many officials with private-sector backgrounds, who aren’t used to such high levels of interest from the public, said Kent Flanagan, TCOG executive director.

Officials at the TPA and TCOG say the administration has asked to meet with them this spring about crafting standard open records policies.

Haslam is also pushing legislation to keep secret certain information from businesses seeking millions of dollars in economic development grants. Haslam wants to shield corporate financial statements, budgets and ownership information.

“There’s certain things in life that we feel like, for the good of that negotiation, we need to keep to ourselves,” Haslam told the TPA.

Haslam was the only major candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial race who refused to release his tax forms.

After his election, he exempted himself and Cabinet members from a Bredesen-era requirement to disclose the amounts of income from various sources. Those high-ranking officials must still disclose income sources.

Legislators considered tweaking the state’s open meetings laws earlier this year so local officials could discuss business in private if no quorum was present. The idea died before a bill was filed, partly at the behest of House Speaker Beth Harwell. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey disagreed.

“Bottom line is, we want open meetings, we want everything to where you can discuss it,” Ramsey said. “All I’ve ever said is to make sure people don’t get in trouble accidentally for something.”

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Shipley Wants TBI to Release Records in Probe of Lawmakers

State Rep. Tony Shipley said he plans to push for a House committee to subpoena the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s files in the recently concluded inquiry into legislative actions by Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford.

Shipley and Ford were subjects of a TBI probe into whether they had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their East Tennessee area. This week Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson announced that he had found no evidence of any crime and would not pursue charges against the two lawmakers.

Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he would use the House Government Operations Committee, on which he serves as secretary, to seek the files. He would need the support of a majority of the members, and Shipley said he would try to enlist one of them to introduce the matter.

But lawyers for the committee cast doubt on the likelihood of getting the records. Legislative subpoenas are rare, they said, and with TBI pushback the matter could end up in court before any documents were released.

TBI files are among the most secretive documents in Tennessee.

They are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, a fact which has drawn renewed attention of late, especially with regards to the TBI’s investigation of Richard Baumgartner, a disgraced and disbarred Knox County Criminal Court judge who was abusing drugs and engaging in other illegal activity while presiding over cases.

In the wake of TBI revelations that Knox County court employees and other judges, as well as prosecutors in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, may have witnessed Judge Baumgartner engaging in ethically suspect or illegal behavior and did nothing about it, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorialized in favor of the public gaining access to TBI files once an investigation is wrapped up.

“Lawmakers should show courage…and side with the public and its right to know about closed police investigations by eliminating TBI’s exemption from the Public Records Act,” the News Sentinel editors wrote last month.

However,  state law already gives committees from either chamber of the General Assembly the power to subpoena all government records. According to state law, “investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shall be open to inspection by elected members of the general assembly if such inspection is directed by a duly adopted resolution of either house or of a standing or joint committee of either house.”

Once a committee obtained the files, Shipley said it would be his intention to make them open to the public.

“There’s nothing I do here that’s not completely aboveboard or open to the public,” Shipley said. “If I bring it to committee, at that point, I don’t have to call for anything. (It’s) wide open.”

Ford, R-Jonesborough, said he doesn’t care who sees the file, either.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you care if everything’s made public,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. But it better be the truth, I can tell you that.”

Shipley has turned his ire on Johnson, who said the lawmakers used “particularly heavy-handed” political pressure.

“I’m a huge supporter of the TBI. I’m a huge supporter of district attorneys. I’m a complete law and order kind of guy,” Shipley said. “But even in those organizations you can have jerks that get in there and mess with the constitution because they think they can. And they can’t.”

The TBI launched the investigation last June to determine if the two legislators and employees of the state’s Health Department had committed any crimes, including official misconduct and false reporting, and whether the lawmakers had improperly pressured the Nursing Board to reconsider its decision to discipline three nurse practitioners.

The nurses had been accused of over-prescribing medication at the Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City, which has since been closed. Shipley and Ford through legislation attempted to shake up the nursing board and its oversight, and raised the specter of doing away with the board altogether. Ford had family ties to an employee and patient at the center.

The board eventually reversed its action against the nurses, though a TBI investigation into their actions remains open.

On Monday, Johnson announced that the state would not prosecute the two legislators. In a statement, he called the case one of “political hardball, but not political corruption.”

Shipley characterized the district attorney’s actions and criticism as a breach of the separation of powers, and the handling of the nurses’ case an “abortion of justice.”

“It is completely inappropriate for them to have stuck their hands into the legislative box,” Shipley said. “The DA made a statement: No criminality found. He should have stopped right there.

“His next comment was totally inappropriate: ‘Heavy-handed politics.’ Well, what was heavy-handed was the TBI’s DA-directed investigation that was blown from Mountain City to Memphis. That was heavy-handed.”

Shipley said he may initiate a legislative probe into where the allegations came from and whether charges could be filed against the individuals responsible for them.

He said the charges of official misconduct should have been seen as baseless from the beginning, because the three criteria for such a charge were impossible in his case. He said there couldn’t have been money or sex exchanged for a vote, because no vote was taken, and that no one’s employment could have been threatened, because he doesn’t have the power to fire anyone on the Nursing Board.

Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced he wants a review of Tennessee’s 22 state boards and commissions. In a statement outlining his 2012 legislative agenda released this week, Haslam expressed his desire to “eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight of these agencies.”

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Featured News Transparency and Elections

Ethics Commission Keeps Complaint Numbers Under Wraps

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, which was created in the wake of a notorious political scandal, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation.

The commission has considered five complaints and thrown them all out in the five years it has been in existence. Records that would shed light on how many total cases it has received are not open to public inspection, officials said.

The law keeps state taxpayers — who fund the ethics and campaign finance bureau to the tune of $593,000 a year — from being able to independently judge whether the commission is effective at detecting ethical lapses.

The commission was founded in 2006 in response to the “Tennessee Waltz” undercover FBI bribery sting that resulted in the convictions of five lawmakers.

“I hope the reason that there haven’t been any violations found has been because there hasn’t been any violations,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Gerald McCormick who said he remembers when those colleagues were hauled off in handcuffs.

But short of a criminal investigation that reveals the commission looked the other way on a serious ethics complaint, McCormick said he doesn’t see a need to change the way the group works.

In addition to ethics complaints, the commission is tasked with publicly assessing civil penalties for political candidates and public officials who fail to reveal their conflicts of interest on time, and punishing lobbyists who misreport their activity on the Hill. Records of those violations are public — which means the public knows when a lawmaker is a few days late filing a form but is kept in the dark if the commission is looking into an allegation of bribery or contract steering, for example.

Those more serious cases are only disclosed when the agency reviews it in a public hearing, after handing it off to another agency or two months after the commission discards the case.

Of the five closed cases that are public record, three involved allegations that local officials omitted details of where their income came from and two alleged that lobbyists were pushing legislation on lawmakers without being registered.

Tennessee is one of four states — along with Delaware, Illinois and Utah — that does not allow commissions to investigate complaints, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The attorney general does the heavy lifting in Tennessee and forwards its results to the commission so it may determine whether to pursue the case in a full, public hearing.

Unlike at least 30 other states, Tennessee’s commission cannot prosecute ethics-law violations, according to NCSL, which does not track how actively ethics commissions are finding violations.  The commission instead can forward serious cases to agencies that do prosecute, such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and levy fines.

The leading Democrat in the Senate says the commission should focus less on campaign finance and more on weightier ethics issues.

“When the Ethics Commission was created, there was an anticipation that there would be more visible activity,” Sen. Jim Kyle, of Memphis.

Jackson Mayor Charles Farmer quit the group in September, saying he was “increasingly doubtful that the Tennessee Ethics Commission can make a meaningful difference in whether the work of government is conducted ethically.”

Kyle, the Democratic minority leader in the Tennessee Senate, said he finds it “very troubling” that someone would “(resign) from the commission saying they’re not doing much of anything.”

Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, said he believes the commission should be taking more initiative, going “beyond just officials checking the boxes and checking the time” on income and lobbyist disclosures.

“I think it’d be good if they were able to get into deeper issues,” said Williams, whose group describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan citizens’ lobby organization.”

“Obviously, bribery or things like that are either federal or state criminal offenses and doesn’t need to be (investigated by) the same body,” he said. “Somehow, I think we need to open up the complaint procedure a little bit.”

The Ethics Commission this week denied a public records request from TNReport seeking the number of complaints the body has received and investigated.

“We can’t verify a complaint has even been filed,” said Drew Rawlins, bureau executive director who also oversees the Registry of Election Finance. He said releasing the information would allow people to deduce when a new case has been filed and who it may be against.

His office pointed to Section 3-6-202(a)(1) of Tennessee state code, which says the commission members and staff “shall preserve the confidentiality of all commission proceedings, including records relating to a preliminary investigation.” The Office of Open Records Counsel, which falls under the state comptroller, agreed with the records denial.

All complaints filed with the commission that are immediately thrown out are closed to public inspection, Rebecca Bradley, an ethics specialist at the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said.

The records only become public if the alleged violator requests the documents be open or if the commission believes the allegation has probable cause, even if the commission ultimately scraps the investigation, the law says.

But Frank Gibson, who directs the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said a simple tally of how many cases had been investigated “should not be confidential.”

The commission has only met twice in the last year after Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell failed to replace four of the six members whose terms had expired. The commission, with mostly new members, is meeting regularly now. Those meetings are closed when the commission takes up ethics complaints.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

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.

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Press Releases

ACLU Challenges TN Public Records Citizenship Requirement

Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Aug. 24, 2010:

ACLU-TN Fights to Open Memphis Records for the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network: Lawsuit Challenges Open Records Citizenship Requirement

NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) today filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Tennessee Public Records Act’s citizenship requirement on behalf of Richard Jones, Midwest Director of the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN). Jones was denied access to public records regarding the granting of a government contract in Memphis because he is not a citizen of Tennessee.

“According to the Constitution, states cannot discriminate against residents of other states by preventing them from exercising basic rights. Denying access to public records based on one’s address not only violates the Constitution, it undermines government accountability,” said Edmund J. Schmidt III, ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney. “We hope this lawsuit will help move Tennessee toward eliminating its unconstitutional open records citizenship requirement.”

Richard Jones is a civil rights advocate who lives in Solon, Ohio and who regularly makes open records requests as he investigates various activities throughout the country for NAN, which works in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a standard of justice and decency for all people, regardless of race, religion, national origin or gender. On May 10, 2010, Jones filed an open records request with the Public Record Coordinator for the City of Memphis, requesting a copy of the December 2008 winning bid for State Advocacy/State Lobbying Services.

The Public Record Coordinator’s office denied Jones’ request, informing him in an email, “Since it does not appear that you are a Tennessee resident, I must deny your request…” Mr. Jones was subsequently referred to the City Attorney’s office, which similarly stated, “This office denies all public record requests from any individual or entity outside the State of Tennessee.” Both offices cited the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) in their denials. Since May 2009, when the Attorney General’s office agreed to waive the citizenship requirement in response to an ACLU-TN challenge, individual agencies have been given discretion in deciding whether or not to release records to people residing out of state.

“My goal in requesting this information is to build a database of government contracts for NAN to both analyze the awarding of government contracts by gender and race, and to help women and minorities understand how to construct winning bids,” said plaintiff Richard Jones. “It’s frustrating to have our efforts to ensure fairness in the bid process be subverted simply because I happen to live in another state.”

The TPRA included the citizenship requirement when it was first enacted in 1957. As recently as 2007, ACLU-TN, the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government and other public interest groups testified in front of the Open Records Sub-Committee of the Special Joint Committee on Open Records, explaining that the provision was a violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the United States Constitution and urging that it be repealed. In 2008, when the Tennessee General Assembly amended the TPRA, they failed to repeal the citizenship provision, despite rulings in other states striking down similar provisions.

In May 2009, the Attorney General’s office agreed to release public records regarding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to award-winning, Massachusetts-based freelance journalist Joseph Rosenbloom just hours before an ACLU-TN lawsuit was to be filed challenging the constitutionality of the citizenship requirement. The move signified a reversal of the AG’s long-held opinion that non-Tennessee citizens could be denied access to public records. However the State Legislature has yet to repeal the unconstitutional citizenship requirement.

The lawsuit, Jones v. Bredesen et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. In addition to ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney Edmund J. Schmidt III, Mr. Jones is represented by ACLU-TN Staff Attorney Tricia Herzfeld.

Other out-of-state residents who have found their access to public records in Tennessee denied are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Tennessee by phone at 615-320-7142 or by email at intake@aclu-tn.org.

A copy of the complaint can be viewed at http://www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/Jones.pdf .

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Press Releases

Sen. Finney Wants Freeze on Lawmakers’ Per Diem

Press Release from Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, March 4, 2010:

Legislators shouldn’t see rates rise as families sacrifice

NASHVILLE – Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) is calling for a freeze on lawmakers’ per diem rate until 2014, saying that legislators shouldn’t receive an increase in per diems until Tennessee’s economy fully recovers.

“Tennessee families are struggling to make ends meet, and lawmakers have no business demanding an increase in taxpayer money for personal use,” Finney said.

Finney’s bill (SB3650) would freeze the current per diem rate until 2014, when Tennessee’s economy is expected to return finally to pre-recession levels, according to presentations to lawmakers by University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox.

Currently Tennessee lawmakers are eligible for $185 per day – one of the highest rates in the country – to cover travel and living expenses. The state faces a tough budget year that could include layoffs and cuts to TennCare.

Tennessee lawmaker per diems are increased automatically when the federal government’s per diem increases, meaning state legislators don’t have to vote on the matter. They can, however, put a freeze on the per diem.

Last October the per diem increased from $171. Under Finney’s bill, the freeze would go into effect Nov. 2010 and would expire in Nov. 2014.

“I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting this freeze. Families across the state are setting priorities every day,” Finney said. “We should do the same.”

Finney plans to introduce his bill next week in the Senate.

Senator Lowe Finney represents Madison, Carroll and Gibson Counties. Contact him at sen.lowe.finney@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-1810 or 317 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0027.