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Nearly a third of records requested in statewide audit denied

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    News Media Update         TENNESSEE         Freedom of Information    

Nearly a third of records requested in statewide audit denied

  • In a statewide examination of information requests in Tennessee, 117 requested records were denied.

Dec. 1, 2004 — Nearly one-third of the 356 public records requested in Tennessee’s first public-access audit were denied during a two-day test of how local government officials respond to requests for public information.

Some of the more than 90 reporters, college students and volunteers in Tennessee’s first public-access audit were questioned at length, yelled at, forced to show their driver’s licenses and — in one county — incorrectly told that a criminal incident report was available only to the crime victim, the Associated Press reported.

Eighty-eight percent of requests for the last approved minutes of the zoning board were granted within 48 hours, but only 60 percent of school systems supplied the records within 48 hours, the audit showed. Thirty-six of the 91 school systems surveyed denied or indefinitely delayed action on records requests.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government announced publicly in June its intentions to conduct a statewide public records audit, and stories about the announcement appeared in major newspapers and were transmitted statewide via the AP. Government offices that were audited were not given specific prior notice that they were being audited, The Tennessean reported.

“It was the first audit by this particular body,” Mike Fishman, president of the Tennessee Press Association and assistant publisher of The Citizen Tribune in Morristown, Tenn., said in a phone interview. “A lot of good has come out of this audit — it has certainly sparked conversation in various counties.”

“The findings are somewhat predictable and it varies across the state,” he added.. “Anything we are doing to ensure the public’s right to know is good.”

City and county offices in all 95 Tennessee counties were visited to assess the availability of the following public records: last recorded minutes of a planning commission or zoning board, two recent crime incident reports and crime logs from the local sheriff and a local police department, and the local school system’s latest report on the number of expulsions or suspensions for drugs, weapons and violence, the AP reported.

The AP reported many instances of difficulty encountered during the audit.

• In Crockett County, sheriff’s department personnel told the auditor: “We can’t let you see this because we don’t know you.”

• A Greene County sheriff’s employee said criminal reports were private. “We don’t let just anyone look through those,” the auditor was told. Informed that the records were public information, the employee replied, “No it’s not, not without a court order.”

• In Van Buren County, a sheriff’s deputy told the auditor that “John Q. Citizen” could not walk in and see public records.

• Many auditors were asked to show their driver’s license even though the state’s Public Records Act does not require citizens to identify themselves when asking for a public document.

• The federal HIPAA law — officially known as the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act — and the Homeland Security Act were used as excuses for not providing records in several counties. Neither, according to experts, is concerned with the types of records sought in the survey.

• In Nashville, the state capital, police said they need $33 to produce a report, The Commercial Appeal reported.

• Auditor Diane Long, a reporter for The Tennessean , wrote in her report that she had to give Lafayette city official Don Stevens ”my name, address, phone number and why I wanted” to receive the zoning board minutes because “there are a lot more rules after 9/11,” the paper reported.

Frank Gibson, the coalition’s executive director, told the AP that the state’s Public Records Law and the Sunshine Law, which prevents elected officials from meeting in secret, were model statutes when they were approved in 1957 and 1974, respectively. The General Assembly has since eroded their effectiveness by approving more than 200 exemptions, said Gibson, a veteran Nashville journalist who still works part-time as an editor for The Tennessean .

Members of coalition include the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, citizen watchdog group Common Cause, and the state’s four most circulated daily newspapers: The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal, The Knoxville News Sentinel and Chattanooga Free Press .

CB

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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