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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

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Featured Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Governor Wants Standardized State-Agency Open-Records Request Processes, Policies

Gov. Bill Haslam has said there are instances when groups or individuals make sweeping public-records requests that aren’t entirely legitimate.

When it happens, government staff-time and taxpayer resources can be wasted trying to fulfill seemingly gratuitous demands — and it’s a problem the governor says his administration is setting out to address this year.

“It is the public’s right to know, and that’s been firmly established,” Haslam told reporters Monday after speaking at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association in Nashville. “On the other hand, just blanket fishing expeditions that cost the taxpayers’ money, it still takes people’s time and work to go get those. I think there needs to be a way for how we decide what’s legitimate and what’s not there.”

Agencies across state government have varying methods for handling requests for public documents, but that, too, is going to change this year, Haslam said.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is make sure we’re being consistent across state government because we have not been, and every department’s been handling that different,” he said.

Haslam first floated his plan to revise the policy during the Tennessee Press Association’s annual conference in Nashville last month. The Republican governor said there needs to be balance between facilitating the public’s right to know and putting the brakes on unfocused requests for mounds of documents that are costly for public agencies to produce.

When he was running for re-election as mayor, Haslam told the group, the City of Knoxville was inundated with open-ended open-records requests from political operatives trolling for intelligence they could use against him. However, the changes Haslam is currently advocating would apply only to state agencies. Haslam also said during the TPA conference that he thinks journalists nowadays turn to public document requests much sooner in their reporting than they did a decade ago.

The governor’s office has so far met once with representatives of stakeholder interests, including the press association, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Associated Press about how they’d like to see the policy crafted. Additional meetings are expected in the coming weeks and months.

Kent Flanagan, TCOG’s executive director, said that as a matter of general principle “any information request” submitted to a government agency “should be regarded as legitimate.”

Flanagan added, though, that he is so far satisfied with talks with the governor’s staff about establishing uniformity among agencies responding to records requests. He added, “If it seems too broad, (state officials) have a right to tell us, ‘Hey, that’s too broad. Can you narrow that down?’”

“We want to make sure that any such situation is addressed in a manner that doesn’t hurt the agency or hurt the requester,” Flanagan continued.

Other government observers are a little more worried.

“I have a concern that he’s tending to come from a business point of view and would be more inclined to closing records than I would be comfortable with,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a left-leaning nonprofit advocacy group.

Some issues are dicey to make public, Williams admits, like luring businesses to release more insider information in order to help the state gain a better understanding of a business it wants to give taxpayer dollars to, such as the governor is proposing this year.

But entitling government employees to themselves pass judgement on what constitutes a “legitimate” request for public information is problematic, he said.

“A fishing expedition just to be fishing, or to tie somebody up, is not appropriate,” said Williams. “On the other hand, if there’s a suspicion that there’s a dead fish there, maybe you need to go on a fishing expedition.”

The state’s Open Records Act outlines that “all state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours … be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state.”

Since taking office last year the governor’s office has gotten on average fewer than two records requests per month, according to an accounting requested by TNReport of all the open-records requests submitted to the administration.

His office has handled some 25 official queries for public records since his 2011 inauguration, the state reported.

Five of the requests sought details about what went into decisions to arrest Occupy Nashville protesters shortly after their October arrests.

Three requests looked for documents from the Department of Economic and Community Development, which issues tax breaks and incentives to businesses, and another three looked for information from the Department of Safety and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Other requests ranged from information about prisons and death row inmates to the list of people scrubbed from the governor’s daily news digest.

All but two requests came from people representing news outlets.

This week marks Sunshine Week, an annual recognition of the importance of open government.

Categories
Education NewsTracker

Shelby County Commissioners Spatting Over Merger Secrets

Shelby County commissioners can’t withhold documents from a fellow commissioner, who has created political enemies there by opposing their plan to enlarge the county school board as it absorbs the Memphis school system.

That’s according to an opinion from the county attorney’s office recounted today in the Commercial Appeal.

Commissioners voted 8-1 early this month for a resolution allowing them to reprimand or withhold written information from anyone who spills secrets.

A violator would still be able to attend confidential meetings with the commission’s lawyers.

The obvious target was (Commissioner Terry Roland), who walked out of a closed-door meeting with attorneys in February and told waiting reporters what was going on.

Categories
NewsTracker Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Ripley Police Chief Resigns, Being Paid $25K Through June

The police chief in Ripley will get his regular pay amounting to $25,000 through the end of June, even though he’s been suspended since January and quit Tuesday night, WBBJ Channel 7 in Jackson reported this week.

We first wrote about Chief Landis Garrison in January, when it was unclear why the top cop had been suspended.

That issue is still murky, but the TV station found that Garrison filed a racial discrimination claim against the city a few days after his suspension.

City officials were set to discuss the findings of an investigation into Garrison the day he quit, but now the city’s attorney is refusing to release the investigation report. Attorney Michael Hill “said he will, out of respect for Garrison, not release what his investigation found.”

Missing from his comments is anything about respect for the taxpayers in Ripley, on the hook for that $25,000 bill with little explanation as to why they’re paying it — or for that matter, what the city is relying on in state law to withhold the report produced with public dollars on public time.

“We’re the public, this is our town, and with any town, we need to know the problems,” one resident told Channel 7. Hear, hear.

Categories
NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

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.