Collaboration brings forward-thinking law
By STATE SEN. RANDY MCNALLY •
June 3, 2008
The right to access government is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. On July 1, legislation recently approved by our General Assembly that upholds that right will become effective, just days before we celebrate the freedom of this great nation.
When implemented, this legislation is predicted to move Tennessee from being rated the fourth-lowest to 10th-best in the nation by open-government watchdog groups. That is quite a leap in the right direction for ensuring freedom of information for our citizens!
It is the freedom of information that allows citizens to fully participate in their government. The more average citizens can find out about their government, the more informed they are going to be.
Tennessee passed our first Public Records Act in 1957. However, its effectiveness had eroded over the years. The last major revision was 25 years ago, until the new legislation was approved during our recently adjourned session.
The law creates the Office of Open Records Counsel, which requires records requests be available within seven days or a denial must be sent with explanation; before, there was no time limit. It also clarifies that violations may be considered in circuit or chancery court, and mandates certain boards and utilities to develop training on open-meeting laws.
Two years’ work rewarded
The process began with passage of a resolution in 2006 to study the issue. The resolution was approved after a statewide survey indicated many public employees lack training and knowledge about the rights of citizens under Tennessee law. A bipartisan committee was chosen, which also included representatives from the news media, open government advocates and officials from county and city governments.
Two subcommittees were appointed last year to expedite the process and to bring about the best possible legislation. One was chaired by Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, the other by Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads. Their highly effective efforts led to proposed legislation that then went to our Senate and House State and Local Government Committees for debate, where further input was given by the chairmen, Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro. And in a special Senate subcommittee, chairman Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, did a tremendous job in crafting the final product that was passed into law.
I appreciate the work of all who were involved in this legislation, especially our city and county representatives and open-government advocates who really moved the ball down the field to bring about this change. In the end, all worked together to pass a law that is a giant step for openness in Tennessee. I particularly look forward to having the resource of an open government counsel, which will help citizens navigate and enforce our open government laws.
Freedom basks in sunshine. This new law truly opens the doors of government wider. It makes government across Tennessee more transparent and accountable and helps restore the public’s trust.
State Sen. Randy McNally is a Republican from Oak Ridge.