According to state representatives from Tennessee’s two biggest cities, open government in Tennessee really should not be that open at all.
State Rep. Mary Pruitt of Nashville and Rep. Ulysses Jones of Memphis have launched a real attack on transparent government in this state through recent proposals to what heretofore would have been legislation to enact positive change in the state’s open records laws.
Pruitt’s changes would see elected officials “notified” when a citizen is accessing records through a public records request dealing with said public official. That would seem to conceivably cover everything from campaign finance records to perhaps planning documents in municipal government to lawsuits in the court system. Big Brother would literally be watching Tennesseans if they want to see through the public record what their elected officials are up to on behalf of the people.
Jones wants to grant government offices broad latitude in how much they charge citizens to access records that are the public’s property to begin with. Jones also wants government offices in the state’s large cities afforded up to a week to respond to open records requests.
If these amendments pass, Tennessee will have taken 20 years worth of backward steps in the arena of open government. They should be rejected wholesale not just by Pruitt and Jones’ fellow Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly but also by Gov. Phil Bredesen.
These changes, if enacted, would have a considerable chilling effect on a citizen’s ability to access public records as it pertains to the actions of government. Public officials have no more of a right to be notified if public records involving them are accessed than does a regular citizen. Not only would these changes, in the words of one leading open government activist, stand to “intimidate” someone seeking public records they would also create essentially a special class of citizen — public officials resting in a place slightly above the law and better than their constituents.
It is time for Tennessee’s state legislators to get real about open government and to pass the progressive changes to the open records laws already proposed before the Pruitt/Jones doctrine came to light. Voters need to know their elected representatives value the concepts of open, transparent government that has nothing to hide.