open government

Court of Appeals rules for TV station in DA’s libel lawsuit

The state Court of Appeals has unanimously overturned a lower court ruling that would have required  Nashville TV station WTVF and reporter Phil Williams to turn over documents related to reporting on Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, who has filed a libel lawsuit.

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Black, Harwell and Fitzhugh release income tax info; other gubernatorial candidates refuse

Four of the seven major candidates for Tennessee governor have turned down a Tennessean request to make public details of their federal income tax returns.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black and fellow Republican state House Speaker Beth Harwell provided financial summaries. Of the other Republican candidates Mae Beavers, Randy Boyd and Bill Lee declined – though Boyd indicated he may reconsider in the future.

On the Democrat side, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh released a copy of his 2016 return and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean declined the request, though indicating he may reconsider later.

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TDEC hides data on low-level radioactive waste from public

Excerpt from a Tennessean report:

Ten years ago, when Murfreesboro residents learned the state had approved the dumping of low-level radioactive waste at a local landfill, a fierce community backlash swiftly put an end to the practice.

Today, Tennessee citizens have no way to find out how much low-level radioactive waste is going into other landfills.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, has wiped that data from its website and said it is confidential.

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Ethics Commission imposes $30K fine on former Rep. Jeremy Durham

The Tennessee Ethics Commission Tuesday voted to impose a $30,000 fine on former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, who already faces $465,000 in penalties imposed by the Registry of Election Finance, reports the Tennessean.

The registry fines were for violation of campaign finance laws. The Ethics Commission penalty is for Durham’s failure to include all sources of income in his conflict-of-interest disclosure filed while he was a legislator.

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State museum commission repeals controversial code of conduct

The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission voted Monday to repeal controversial policy changes adopted in July that some state legislators saw as an attempt to muzzle critics, reports the Nashville Post.

The policies included a “code of conduct” that prevented commission members from maligning the Tennessee State Museum or its staff and required notification before a member spoke to the press. It also outlined a process to force the resignation of a commissioner who didn’t abide by the policies — something at odds with the state law that specifies how commissioners are appointed.

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$2.5B in annual TN business subsidies, outcomes often unknown

Tennessee state and local governments provide more than $2.5 billion in subsidies such as grants, tax breaks and tax credits to businesses each year, but there’s often little public information provided on whether the taxpayer money is working to produce promised jobs.

That’s the bottom line of reporting by the state’s four largest newspapers  — The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal, Knoxville News Sentinel and (Chattanooga) Times Free Press — published this weekend.

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House Republicans hold ‘team-building’ retreat

House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams tells The Tennessean about 50 members attended a “retreat” and fundraiser on Sunday and Monday.

Most of the meetings were at the offices of a Nashville law firm, where he says the Republican representatives heard from the three state constitutional officers, discussed membership dues and forthcoming open legislative seats and participated in team-building sessions (including a bowling outing).

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Court of Appeals rules public records requests may be sent via email

From the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government website:

The Court of Appeals has affirmed a Sumner County trial court’s ruling that the denial of a public records request because it was sent by email violated the Tennessee Public Records Act.

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TN museum staff ‘off the deep end’ in blocking access to public records?

A Tennessee State Museum staffer snatched an agenda packet for Monday’s meeting of the museum’s governing board from a reporter’s hand and declared she would have to file a formal open records request to see one, according to the Nashville Scene.

The reporter was Cari Wade Gervin, who (after the episode) penned an article on the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission’s vote at the Monday meeting to adopt a new code of ethics that former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe,  a member of the board who was absent at the session, labeled “a gag order.” It puts new restrictions on commission members speaking publicly about museum operations. (Previous post HERE.)

Excerpt from the Scene’s report (under a headline declaring, ‘State Museum staff hiding records from public’):

Gervin went to pick up a meeting agenda packet and was informed that she would have to file a written open records request with the Attorney General’s office to see one. When she tried to take a picture of one, it was grabbed out of her hand by Mary Skinner, the museum’s media relations officer. When House Speaker Beth Harwell, a commission member, gave Gervin her copy, museum staff attempted to take that one, too.

To be clear: A state employee attempted to stop a member of the press from reading a public record that should be made readily available to the public. This is actually against the law.

… “It looks like it’s an intentional attempt to keep information from the public,” says Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “This commission has gone off the deep end.”

Note: Ashe is also a member of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government board of directors. He says notice of the proposal to adopt a new code of ethics was not sent to museum commission members (via email) until 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, when the meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

UPDATE: On Friday, Museum Executive Director Ashley Howell sent out this statement: “In the future, the Tennessee State Museum will proactively provide all members of the media copies of agendas and accompanying materials for each Commission meeting in keeping with the practice of most state agencies. The museum’s management values transparency, and we will work diligently to abide by the state’s open records act.  We appreciate and value the role of the press, and we welcome coverage of museum business.”

TN State Museum board votes to impose ‘gag order’ (Victor Ashe’s description) on its members

The governing board of the Tennessee State Museum has adopted a “astonishingly broad new code of conduct” that restricts board members’ public commentary on museum affairs, reports the Nashville Post.

The new code, which was adopted without much discussion Monday morning, was emailed to members at 1 a.m. Sunday, less than 36 hours before the vote. Although state law dictates the DHSMC (Douglas Henry State Museum Commission) should “promulgate rules and regulations” in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (as it is spelled out in state law), DHSMC chair Tom Smith said “operating policies” are not subject to the UAPA and thus do not need to go through the state’s lengthy notice process in advance of hearings for rule changes.

Although Smith stated repeatedly the changes to the code of conduct were not singling out any one individual commissioner, the new regulations seem specifically designed to target one particular DHSMC member — Victor Ashe, who was just reappointed to the commission for another four years and has been a regular critic of some of the commission’s recent actions.

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