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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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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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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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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New TN Open Records Counsel (and assistant) appointed

News release from state comptroller’s office

Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson announced today that Lee Pope will serve as the new Open Records Counsel in the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel (OORC).

As the new Open Records Counsel, Pope will lead the OORC which serves as a resource for citizens, media and governmental entities who have questions about Tennessee’s public records and open meetings laws. The OORC also helps Tennessee citizens and governmental entities understand these laws through educational outreach and promulgating policies, best practices and guidelines. The OORC’s assistance and education efforts are crucial to ensuring transparency in government.

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Judge rules records of failed Fall Creek Falls privatization effort must be made public

The Tennessee Department of General Services must release records related to the failed privatization effort at Fall Creek Falls State Park, Davidson County Chancellor Bill Young ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post.

From the Scene’s report:

The case was unique because the state received no bids on a proposal to demolish and rebuild the Inn at Fall Creek Falls, despite amending the original request for proposals several times. A May 1 final deadline passed with no bids. The Scene asked for the records that would normally be available for public inspection at the end of any bid evaluation process.

The state claimed that because no bids had been evaluated, TDGS was not required to release the records associated with the process. The Scene filed suit on May 31.

Chancellor Young disagreed, noting that the state’s public records law instructs that it “shall be broadly construed so as to give the fullest possible public access to public records.” He ordered the records to be made available, ruling that any documents or communications that the state claims are protected by attorney-client privilege must be submitted to the court for evaluation. 

“It’s a good day for transparency in Tennessee,” says Chris Ferrell, CEO of Southcomm, the parent company of the Scene and Nashville Post. “While I’m sorry we had file suit in order to get the state to comply, it’s reassuring that the courts recognize that the state can’t decide to hide things from the public in such an arbitrary way.”

Young instructed Scene attorney John Williams and lawyers for the state to agree to and submit an order to the court by early July. Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said in court that the state may ask for a stay of Young’s ruling, pending an appeal.

Judge OKs public release of withheld records on Sevier County wildfire

State officials kept secret for weeks a judge’s ruling that government records on the handling of the deadly Sevier County wildfire could be released to the public, reports the News Sentinel, which obtained a copy by asking the judge and court clerk.

The order by Juvenile and General Sessions Judge Jeff Rader, filed June 5, came in response to the state attorney general’s request for clarification on what records the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release about the fire that killed 14 people.

…The judge, who will hear the case of the two teenagers accused of setting the blaze, said a gag order issued in the case applied only to prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials – and to no one else.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and various other agencies have cited the case for months in refusing to release records of the response to the wildfire. TEMA spokesman Dean Flener indicated the agency will comply with the ruling. He offered no timetable.

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