Putting the ‘Public’ Back Into Public Records

Contributed by: Ann Hinch on 9/8/2006

With some new county swearing-ins behind us and city elections in front of us in Loudon County, this seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the importance of open records and open meetings laws, sometimes called "Sunshine" laws. This is based on some e-mail complaints I've received over the past year or so about lack of access.

Also, if I have to hear one more officeholder say about an upcoming comment, during a public meeting, "This is off the record," I'm going to scream.

In the past dozen years, I've written for various publications in two states, and these laws are pretty similar in Tennessee and Missouri. They're actually fairly similar across the United States, from what I gather from other journalists. At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act functions much like states' sunshine laws.

My first editor didn't have a law degree, but he had been gathering news long enough to formulate his own criteria for requesting public documents, one that I find still works: If tax dollars pay for it, with rare exception, it's public information.

I tend to still live by his wisdom, since he was proven legally correct so many times. That, and he is much smarter than me.

The most frequent complaint I hear from people trying to get public records is timeliness (and, to a lesser degree, trying to actually get them in the first place). If someone requests to see documents filed with a county or city office, there's no reason to deny it unless they are critical to the secrecy of a pending lawsuit or real estate negotiation - notice I don't say "purchase," because deliberations about purchase action are subject to public scrutiny. In fact Tennessee's Open Records law mandates that public records "shall at all times, during business hours, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law."

(b) The head of a governmental entity may promulgate rules

Possibly there are workers in government offices who make it difficult for members of the public requesting information because they're trying to hide something. Without being too naive, I'd rather hope that it's because they're just not yet well aware on what they should do. None of us are born knowing this stuff.

This isn't just for elected officials - it also applies to county and city department heads. It also applies to quasi-governmental officials, such as appointed volunteer committee and board members. It applies to anyone who helps shape or determine public policy and ordinance.

Timeliness matters. If someone asks for information you have a week before a meeting, especially if they're willing to return to your office to pick it up a day or two later, providing it to them 10 minutes before (or into) a meeting is not cool. We've all heard stories about Congress passing important bills its members barely skimmed before voting upon, and winced at the idea - and yet, it's okay for a citizen who helps pay the bills to remain ignorant until the eleventh hour?

Nobody's asking for a blood sacrifice; just for what they are entitled to under American and state law. After all, what's the point of trying to spread democracy overseas if we're not going to use it here?