By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn.) — Gov. Bill Haslam says it’s “not easy” to strike a balance between efficiency and transparency in state government. In several cases this year, the Republican governor has sided in favor of making information confidential.
Haslam has signed measures to make confidential the names of all but the three finalists for leadership positions in state colleges and universities, and to prevent parents from finding out the evaluation scores of teachers.
Haslam in an interview with The Associated Press last week also continued to defend his failed effort to close off information about companies — including the identities of their owners — that receive cash grants from the state.
“Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between what’s doing best for the state and protecting the public’s right to know,” Haslam said. “And that’s not easy.”
Haslam’s view on government openness appears to have become more nuanced since he put his signature on an executive order on his first day in office that stated “it is the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable.”
The new governor said in a statement at the time that, “The rule should be the more you can be in the open, the better.”
Tennessee lawmakers passed what is known as the Public Records Act ensuring that records are open for inspection in 1957 and the Open Meetings Act in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974. Commonly referred to as sunshine laws, they mark the high point of efforts to keep state and local governments open and transparent to their citizens.
Asked in the AP interview what steps he’s taken to promote more openness through his first two legislative sessions as governor, Haslam said more information is now made available government websites.
“Is there more openness now than there has been in the past? I would say yes,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about measuring what’s public now, and what was public 20 years ago — and I think there’s much more public now.”
Frank Gibson, the public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, noted that lawmakers have approved more than 350 exemptions to the open records law since it was enacted, and that they keep adding exemptions at a pace of about four or five each year.
“Some of them are reasonable, but every time one passes it just makes it easier to pass the next one,” he said. “They get started and they can’t stop.”
Gibson was the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member.
“The thing that gets overlooked by folks in government a lot is the fact that the Sunshine Law is there to benefit the customer, and the customer in this case is the taxpayer and the public,” Gibson said. “I have known few situations where secrecy in government turned out to be a good thing.”
Haslam endorsed transparency this year when he was a prominent and early voice against an effort that would eroded the Open Meetings Act.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association had been promoting a change in the law to allow closed-door talks among local government officials as long as a quorum was not present. Haslam in December told reporters that he rejected efforts to water down the law, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, soon followed suit.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville has said he’s against weakening open government laws, but also said he considers some elements of the current open meetings rules too onerous.
Lawmakers did approve one change to open meetings laws by allowing school board members to participate in meetings electronically up to twice a year if they were out of the country for work, on military service or attending to a family emergency.
Opponents of the measure said they worried that other elected bodies like county commissions, the city councils and even the Legislature could one day try to follow suit, and several argued that a physical presence is a fundamental requirement for casting a vote.
“If we allow them to attend and vote electronically, they’re not facing the public,” Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said during the floor debate in the House. “People run for office and they know what the job entails.”
Haslam signed the bill into law last month