Keeping public records open in Tennessee

Robert Houk • Updated May 24, 2019 at 12:06 PM

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, needed more time to review a caption bill he is sponsoring to make all jail booking mug shots confidential. State Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, is the sponsor of that bill.

The head of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said Thursday the 111th state General Assembly “did no harm” to government transparency this year, but warned of possible threats to open government on the horizon.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the coalition, said Tennessee lawmakers “took a step in the right direction” for protecting open records during the first half of their two-year session, which ended earlier this month. That came when the state House of Representatives approved a new process for adopting exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act that would give stakeholders an additional chance to voice their concerns.

The change — which is currently limited to the House and becomes effective when lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 14 —  requires that all bills granting an exception to the open records law must be referred to “the House Government Operations Committee, according to the rules of the House of Representatives.”

Fisher said that committee is required to give the measure a positive, neutral or negative recommendation before the legislation continues its way through the House committee system. She said the current list of exceptions to the open records law is nearing 600.

That includes a new exemption passed earlier this year to make “personally identifying information” on traffic accident reports confidential.

Tennessee’s Public Records Act requires governmental entities to grant full access to public records to every citizen of Tennessee. The measure directs the courts to construe the act broadly “so as to give the fullest possible access to public records.”

“Citizens should impress on their lawmakers the need to take a stand on preserving open records, and how important this issue is to them,” Fisher said. “This a nonpartisan issue, but it does take vigilance.”

Meanwhile, Fisher said the General Assembly has “wisely delayed” a bill that would allow public entities to “get an injunction” to stop public records requests from residents deemed to be engaging in abuse, intimidation or harassment. She said TCOG has been working with sponsors of the measure to find an alternative to simply denying public information to citizens.

“We have asked for amendments to make information more accessible to the public,” she said.

As a result, Fisher said state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, has agreed to add amendments to his bill to require local governments post such information as agendas for upcoming meetings and minutes of public meetings on their websites.

“This is the No. 1 bill to watch as far as the possible impact on public records — either positive or negative,” she said.

Other public records-related measures delayed this year include:

• Legislation to make all 911 calls and transmissions confidential. HB 335 would exempt 911 from the public records law, making them only available to law enforcement, court and related government agencies.

• A caption bill that would make all jail booking mug shots confidential. The sponsor, state Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, said he needed additional time to study the issue.

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