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VOL. 39 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 6, 2015

Open records advocate: Citizens have tougher time than media

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NASHVILLE (AP) - Denial of public records, excessive fees to find out what the government is doing, violations of open meetings law and long delays in getting information are some of the problems open records advocates find in Tennessee.

News media routinely face hurdles in getting information to report to the public but ordinary citizens have it 10 times worse, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She made the comment during the annual Associated Press-Tennessee Press Association legislative preview session.

Fisher told the story of a widow who was charged $1,000 just to see the case file involving her husband who had been shot to death by a sheriff's deputy.

Ordinary citizens or the media aren't the only ones kept in the dark.

"I've gotten calls from county commissioners complaining we're not being told what we're voting on," Fisher said.

Delays getting records, denials of records that are clearly public, excessive fees, violations of open meetings laws and the failure of records custodians to work with people who want the information are the biggest problems, Fisher said. She said sometimes deliberations at meetings are done in private when boards vote to rezone property and disperse public funds.

The public is often left in the dark because of law enforcement's refusal to turn over records. During a panel discussion, Frank "Buzz" Trexler, managing editor of The Daily Times in Maryville, told of his paper's difficulty reporting on two fatal shootings because the government repeatedly refused to turn over information. One was the case of 17-year-old Skyler Boring, who was killed in May 2013. The other involved a Blount County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a property owner. Trexler said agencies repeatedly "stonewalled" the paper's requests.

The decision by a board to give top management at Erlanger Health System $1.7 milli on in bonuses came up in the discussion. The state attorney general has since issued an opinion saying that public hospital boards are not permitted to discuss compensation in secret.

It can be costly to the taxpayers when public officials disobey the law. Sometimes local governments wind up paying thousands of dollars, and in some cases legal fees, if a court tells them they should have turned over the records, Fisher said.

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