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Government should remain in the sunshine

Sunshine Week, which kicked off Sunday, March 13, started almost a decade ago when 150 proposals in the Florida legislature threatened to turn the Sunshine State’s model “government in the sunshine” law into Swiss cheese.
Newspapers mounted “Sunshine Sunday” — a campaign reminding Floridians of the high level of openness they enjoyed, highlighting the benefits of government transparency and detailing potential consequences of the proposals. Only a few passed.
The severity of some proposals in this year’s General Assembly suggests those clouds may have moved here. Some would make it harder for Tennesseans to keep up with what their government is doing, how tax dollars are spent, and how some services are performing. Another would make it significantly more expensive for citizens to see public records.
Senate Bill 115 would put all “sunshine” meeting and other public notices exclusively on “official” government websites in Knox County, taking them out of newspapers for two years. It’s called a “pilot” project, but for Knox Countians, the pilot will be wearing a blindfold.
According to research by the broadband-expansion group Connected Tennessee, an estimated 47,000 (24%) Knox County households do not own computers. Almost three-fourths of those who have computers do not visit local government websites.
Those numbers are comparable statewide and are significantly higher among the elderly, racial minorities, and more rural communities.
The sponsor says newspapers are dying. Everybody is going to the Internet. A vote on the measure was delayed until March 29, the sponsor urging other lawmakers to join him and add their communities. HB1309 would do the same thing in Hamilton County, only permanently.
Sunshine meeting and other public notices should be available where more citizens are likely to see them. The Knox County proposal ignores the fact that the independently-audited circulation of the Knoxville News Sentinel is twice the audience of government websites. The newspaper also publishes the notices on its website, which alone has twice the readership of government websites.
Another serious proposal, House Bill 1539, would close Emergency 911 dispatch records. Proponents say it is to protect the privacy of callers, but it would foreclose the ability of taxpayers to judge the performance of those vital public safety services.
HB1875 would allow the government to impose labor charges to inspect public records, if it takes more than an hour to produce them. The law already permits government labor charges to provide copies, but the first hour is free except for the per-page charge.
SB1168, also from Memphis, would give local government and their attornies broad discretion to withhold “information” on economic development proposals for up to five years, if the attorney finds it “sensitive” enough to harm recruitment efforts.
The proposal goes beyond the standard protection for “proprietary” business information. No one wants to hamper job recruitment, but exclusions shouldn’t be so broad as to invite abuse.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote more than a century ago: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient of policemen.”

Frank Gibson is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Reach him at [email protected]