Open Records Proposal Would Boost Tennessee's National Ranking

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE (AP) - A legislative proposal that aims to expand access to state open records would boost Tennessee's national ranking by the Better Government Association from near the bottom to No. 10.

The Chicago-based open government advocacy group currently rates Tennessee's open records law as second-worst in the South - ahead of only Alabama.

Lawmakers planned to begin evaluating proposals submitted by the Open Government Study Committee on Wednesday in the Senate's Government Operations Committee.

"The General Assembly has an opportunity to improve the law and protect the rights of citizens to information that affects their lives," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, in a release.

The recommended changes include writing the open records ombudsman's office into law, requiring records keepers to respond promptly to requests and to require giving a specific legal reason for denying records to the public.

Under Tennessee's current law, it can take a lawsuit for citizens to find out why their requests have been denied or delayed. And courts rarely order governments to pay legal fees even if they lose their cases, Gibson said.

The state's Public Records Act says all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen - unless the record is specifically exempt.

But there are hundreds of such exemptions in the law, including medical records, sensitive military documents and investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Gov. Phil Bredesen last year included $100,000 in the state's budget to create an ombudsman's office to help people navigate the complex open records law. But the law wasn't changed to define the ombudsman's role or to give the position enforcement authority.

"An advisory opinion from the ombudsman may make outrageous conduct easier to prove, but it is still a very high standard," Better Government Association Director Jay Stewart said in a release.

The study committee last year produced a package of recommended revisions to state laws spelling out access to public records and requiring open meetings for government bodies.

The open meetings element has drawn considerable fire from open government advocates who contend it would seriously weaken state law by allowing up to three officials of a body to meet privately to discuss public business.

Current law prohibits "two or more" members of a public body such as city councils or county commissions from discussing public business in private.

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