TN legislative leaders honor open records request

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. ā€” While Tennessee lawmakers do not fall under the state’s open records law, the General Assembly’s policy is to make what officials call a good faith effort to comply with requests from the public.

Under those rules, lawmakers are asked to search their own correspondence and emails for records they consider to be responsive to the request. That’s not good enough for one senior Democrat, who argues that it shouldn’t be up to each of the 132 lawmakers to decide which documents to release.

“To trust the members I don’t think is fully responsive,” said Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris. “The state owns these email accounts, and they should make sure they’re being fully responsive.”

A recent Associated Press request for a week’s worth of emails and daily schedules from legislative leaders in all 50 states was met with as many denials as approvals. In Tennessee, the top two Democrats and top two Republicans complied with the request.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, provided a combined 1,600 pages of emails and calendars as part of the request.

Harris said he was unsuccessful in getting either the office of legislative administration or the state attorney general’s office to take over responsibility for producing the records from his email. Instead, he provided the AP with the logon and password to his legislative email account to inspect it in its entirety.

Harris, a Memphis attorney, likened the Legislature’s rules to allowing somebody who is being sued in a workplace sexual harassment case to decide which documents to turn over in the discovery process.

“This is not in the spirit of freedom of information,” he said.

The same records request was also made of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s office, which released emails but maintained a long-held position of refusing to provide his personal calendar on the basis of “deliberative process privilege” under common law.

Note: In other states, the AP found more legislative leaders denying the request than complying. Here’s the start of the national story:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) ā€” State capitols are often referred to as “the people’s house,” but legislatures frequently put up no-trespassing signs by exempting themselves from public-records laws.

That tendency was apparent when The Associated Press sought emails and daily schedules of legislative leaders in all 50 states. The request was met with more denials than approvals.

Some lawmakers claimed “legislative immunity” from the public-records laws that apply to most state and local officials. Others said secrecy was essential to the deliberative process of making laws. And some feared that releasing the records could invade the privacy of citizens, creating a “chilling effect” on the right of people to petition their government.

Without access to such records, it’s harder for the public to know who is trying to influence their lawmakers on important policy decisions.

“The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing, because it’s the people’s job to hold those folks politically accountable,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael, California-based nonprofit that advocates for greater openness in government.

The full story, as appearing in the News Sentinel, is HERE.