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Former SPJ president pushes for transparency

By Billy O'Keefe

By Josephine Varnier
After a revealing statewide audit conduced by watchdog group Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, resources about open records and meetings have become available in Tennessee, and the number of requests for information has increased.
And now the government has started pushing back.
Former SPJ President and Wells Memorial Key recipient Frank Gibson has been lobbying for sunshine laws with the coalition, but said legislators have started filing more bills to close certain records and meetings.
In 2004, Gibson, with the help of 100 volunteers, arranged Tennessee’s first public records audit, finding that 35 percent of records requests for police departments and 45 percent of records requests for sheriff’s departments were denied.
The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel was created in 2008 to answer questions from journalists, citizens and government officials to confirm or deny the accessibility of records. It has handled 600 calls in its first year without any promotion or advertising.
“Citizens have a place to call now,” Gibson said. “They can call and check it … and get told a record is open.”
The sunshine laws on the books had been neglected since 1974, Gibson said. Between 1974 and 2008, around half a dozen exemptions had been passed, closing certain records or meetings, he said. But in the last year alone, legislators have filed for three times as many exemptions as is the norm in a single year for a two-year session, Gibson said.
The Tennessee General Assembly meets for 90 days spread over a two-year term.
Exemptions passed this year have sealed government building security documents, labor negotiation meetings, autopsy photographs and governing bodies’ personal chat rooms.
A citizens’ advisory committee on open government is trying to get broader review for legislation before it’s passed so that members of the press, citizens and government representatives discuss and screen proposed legislation.
Gibson said the committee managed to get some legislation postponed until next session, and that a lot of homework needs to be done to fight them.
“Out of a total of 30 (bills), 25 have been stopped or delayed until next year’s general assembly session,” he said.
The coalition is working on its latest project, the citizens’ guide “The Keys to Open Government.”
“There is no information for citizens,” Gibson said. “Just reading laws doesn’t satisfy or answer questions. The key to open government is knowledge.”