Tag Archives: open government

Museum board boss: No more emailing

The chair of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, Tom Smith, has informed all fellow members that they should no longer email each other, about anything, at any time, reports Nashville Post Politics.

“It has come to my attention that one or more Commission members have been communicating with other Commission members by e-mail,” Smith wrote (in an email) last week. “Per my conversations with the Attorney General’s office these e-mail communications could be viewed as discussions and/or deliberations in violation of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act and otherwise foster a perception of a lack of transparency by this public body.

“Accordingly, in order to ensure that we are in full compliance with Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, as Chairman, I am directing that that there be no further email communications between and among members of this Commission in their capacity as members of this Commission,” Smith added (emphasis his).
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Berke, staff used encrypted messages to communicate

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and City Attorney Wade Hinton on Monday said they’ve both used encrypted smartphone message applications to communicate government business, reports the Times-Free Press.

The app they used, Whatsapp, is an encrypted messaging platform that only allows message senders and recipients to store messages and phone calls. Unlike an email sent using the city’s email server, Whatsapp does not store messages sent by its users.

Concerns over text communications by Berke and his senior staff arose after a domestic incident involving adviser Lacie Stone and her husband, Bobby. Bobby Stone has alleged his wife was having an affair with Berke, who has denied the claim.

On Monday, Berke asserted the usage of Whatsapp or similar technology does not run counter to his administration’s commitment to transparency.

“I have used Whatsapp in the past,” Berke said. “I do not currently use Whatsapp to communicate with them [his staff]. We communicated with it and sent messages that have government business on them and comply with our [open record] responsibilities, just like our text messages.”

Berke did not explain why members of the city staff used encrypted messaging as opposed to regular text messaging or offer an explanation as to why he quit using Whatsapp.

Harwell, Haslam back new rules on investing campaign funds

House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s having legislation drafted to put some rules in place for legislators investing campaign funds in private companies, reports The Tennessean. Gov. Bill Haslam says he’d support additional disclosure of investments.

This comes as the Registry of Election Finance is investigating former state Rep. Jeremy Durham’s investment of campaign money in a company owned by Andy Miller, a well-known GOP donor who’s given money to Durham in the past.

“The governor believes it is good policy to disclose campaign investments just like personal disclosures made annually to the Tennessee Ethics Commission,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals. The personal disclosures require public officials to report any investments worth $10,000 or more.

Harwell, R-Nashville, state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Marvylle, and Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said separately there should be more transparency and regulations when Tennessee public officials invest their campaign funds.

“I do not personally believe campaign contributions should be invested in private companies. I have directed our legal staff to research these issues and work with the Registry of Election Finance to identify the best remedy, so that legislation can be introduced to address it,” Harwell said in an email Monday.

“I believe in and support full disclosure and transparency in our campaign finance reports, and will always support legislation to that end. We should always strive to keep up to date on best practices, and I will be supportive of legislation seeking to address increased transparency or regulations on gift-giving or investments.”

…Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, agreed there should be more transparency but didn’t go as far as to suggest legislation.
“I think it is entirely appropriate that we require full disclosure of a campaign’s investments and interests, just as we do for personal interests and investments,” the retiring lawmaker said.

“While investments in campaign accounts should be permissible, they should be limited to investments that are public and available to all — publicly-traded stocks, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, etc. — to eliminate even the appearance of undue influence.”

UT paying lawyers $45K each to evaluate sexual environment

The University of Tennessee will pay four attorneys $45,000 each plus expenses to evaluate the UT system’s Title IX programs in the wake of a federal lawsuit settled in July that accused the school of maintaining a “hostile sexual environment,” reports the News Sentinel.

UT President Joe DiPietro said Wednesday that he hopes to keep the cost of the independent commission under $250,000.

The group will meet privately for the first time with DiPietro on Nov. 17 in Knoxville and will then begin its work independently of the university after Thanksgiving, he said. Subsequent meetings will also be secret, unless the commission decides to hold public meetings for community feedback. The group’s correspondence would also be privileged, DiPietro said.

“Our view of this is because it’s an independent commission and it’s under the purview of (law firm) Neal & Harwell, that the meetings and information are private,” DiPietro said. “But there will be a public report at the end of it.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that because the commission was hired by UT’s president rather than appointed by the board of trustees, the meetings are not subject to open meetings laws. Although documents the commission generates for the university would be public, anything considered “legal advice” would be covered by attorney-client privilege, she said.

…The four commission members are:

•Stanley Brand, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington with experience handling political corruption cases.

•Bill Morelli, an attorney in Nashville who specializes in compliance law and ethics code development who spent more than two decades with Ingram Industries, a manufacturing company.

•Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the University of Connecticut.

•Janet Judge, president of Sports Law Associates LLC, who concentrates on sexual harassment, sexual violence prevention in intercollegiate sports and employment law.

Ashe, Haslam differ on museum donation disclosure

Though a recent state attorney general opinion says donors to a $40 million fundraising campaign for the Tennessee State Museum can be kept secret, Gov. Bill Haslam — who is leading the campaign — says the names should be made public, but not the exact amount of each contribution.

The governor’s position, relayed through spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals, is criticized as “a half-baked disclosure” and likened to “being a little bit pregnant” by Victor Ashe, a former Knoxville mayor and U.S. ambassador to Poland who is a member both of the board overseeing museum operations and the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, which advocates transparency in governmental operations.

It is the latest spinoff in a long-running series of clashes over museum management and tangential issues between Ashe and fellow members of the museum oversight board, officially known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission. It does appear to be a first in that Ashe is directly differing with the governor, who is also a former Knoxville mayor.

The clashes continue otherwise, though the initial objective of Ashe’s two-year crusade on museum matters — replacement of Lois Riggins-Ezzell as the museum’s executive director — was apparently achieved last week.

Haslam and the commission’s current chairman, Thomas S. Smith of Nashville, announced Thursday the retirement effective Dec. 31 of Riggins-Ezzell, 76, who has served 35 years in the position. Ashe had accused Riggins-Ezzell of mismanagement, favoritism toward friends in acquiring museum exhibits and other faults.

Haslam said last week that “Lois has given her heart and soul to telling Tennessee’s story and showcasing its rich history” during her tenure, which has seen the museum expand from basement housing with six employees to a 42-employee operation with a $3.8 million annual budget and housing on three floors of the James K. Polk State Office Building, located a block from the state capitol.

At Haslam’s request, the Legislature has authorized construction of a new $160 million museum in a stand-alone building, scheduled to open in December of 2018. The money will come from $120 million in taxpayer funds with the remaining $40 million to be raised in private donations, with the governor spearheading the fundraising efforts. Continue reading

Lawsuit over public records via email

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has agreed to let both the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Risk Management Trust weigh in on an appeal in a Sumner County open records lawsuit, reports The Tennessean.

Sumner County Judge Dee David Gay ruled in November that the Sumner County Board of Education violated the Tennessee Public Records Act by denying a records request Joelton resident Ken Jakes made via email and over the telephone. In his ruling, Gay said the school system’s policy of only accepting records requests via U.S. mail or in person was too restrictive for citizens, and ordered the board to craft a new public records policy.

School board members voted unanimously in December to appeal Gay’s ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and enacted a new policy in March that includes the use of a dedicated phone line for public records requests.

The TSBA, an organization comprised of 141 school districts from across the state, filed a motion Aug. 3 requesting permission to both file a brief on behalf of the Sumner County Board of Education as well as address the court during oral arguments.

“… the case is one that affects the rights and responsibilities of school systems in their capacity as a local government subject to Tennessee’s open records laws,” the TSBA said in its court filing. “The issue of interpretation of these laws is statewide in principle and has the potential to affect not only how school systems respond to open records requests but also how local governments respond to open records requests.”

The Tennessee Risk Management Trust, a member-owned insurance trust for public entities, requested Aug. 19 to also file an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief in the case. The briefs are often a way for someone not a party to a case to offer advice to the court in a decision likely to hold broader implications than just for the two parties arguing the case.

“The ruling of the trial court has a far-reaching and potentially detrimental effect on the Trust’s members,” TRMT attorneys said in the court filing. The document also says that the trust’s members include 60 counties, 102 school systems and 40 municipalities and other governmental entities within Tennessee. The Sumner County Board of Education is not a member of the trust, according to spokesman Jeremy Johnson.

The appeals court granted this week both organizations’ requests to file the briefs. However, neither group will be allowed to make oral arguments in the case. A court date has not yet been set.

Judge rules on public records promptness

Beginning of a Deborah Fisher article written for the the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government:

In what may be the first legal challenge to government delays on public records requests in Tennessee under a 2008 law, a judge has ruled that Metro Nashville violated the “prompt” provision in the statute by holding up traffic accident reports.

Senior Judge Robert E. Lee Davies ordered the city to provide access to the reports within 72 hours of their creation.

He also found that Metro Nashville Police Department’s request form did not comply with the Public Records Act because it stated that the city had “seven business days to process” a records request, which is contrary to law.

Many requesters, including journalists across the state, often complain that government entities slow-walk their public records requests even when the record they seek is readily available. In late 2014, for example, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville initially refused to release a document that had been voted upon a few days earlier by a subcommittee of the public agency’s board of directors. The public information officer told the news reporter she had seven business days to release it, which would been after the full board voted on the document.

But the law says differently, which Judge Davies recognized in his order signed last week.

CCA faces lawsuit over menstruation strip searches

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America is trying to seal from public view documents in a lawsuit that claim female visitors to a Tennessee prison were forced to undergo strip searches to prove they were menstruating.

Three women have accused the company of violating their rights by forcing them to expose their genitals to guards after they tried to bring sanitary pads or tampons into South Central Correctional Facility, about 85 miles southwest of Nashville. One woman said her three children had to witness the search.

Protective orders in the case allow documents that could pose a security risk to the prison to be filed under seal. Each side is accusing the other of violating those orders. Continue reading

Harwell, two other reps get open government honors

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — State House Speaker Beth Harwell and two other state lawmakers have been honored for their support of open government in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Press Association, which represents the state’s daily and weekly newspapers, awarded Harwell, R-Nashville, and Reps. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, the association’s 2016 Open Government Award on Friday.

TPA President Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, praised Harwell’s “leadership by example.” He cited her unprecedented policy of requiring committee chairs to give notice of unscheduled meetings. Harwell also insisted the Attorney General’s report the sexual harassment investigation of Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, be made public.

Ramsey and Sanderson were lauded for their commitment as committee chairs to ensure bills affecting open government receive thorough reviews and are not too broad. Ramsey chairs the House State Government Committee. Sanderson leads the State Government subcommittee.

Also Friday, Ron Fryar, publisher of the Cannon Courier of Woodbury, took the reins as TPA president for 2016-2017.

Haslam says his email use ‘isn’t a Hillary Clinton deal’

Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday that all state business is conducted on the state’s email system by him and his staff except for an occasional ” inadvertent slip” and that situation is not comparable to controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email, according to the News Sentinel.

The governor’s remarks were in response to the posting of dozens of email messages regarding state business and policy sent among Haslam’s current and former top staff and advisers using private accounts primarily associated with the campaign “@billhaslam.com” email domain established for his 2010 and 2014 election campaigns,

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 obtained the email through a public records request for “any state email sent to and from the domain billhaslam.com to or from” any member of the governor’s cabinet, which includes state department commissioners and the governor’s top staff. After the request was later narrowed down to one day, Aug. 24, 2015, the governor’s office produced several email exchanges that either originated from or were sent to the private accounts but which ended up in the state email system when they were forwarded or other state officials were copied on them.

According to a state memo given to NewsChannel5 with the email, the administration withheld 18 documents from disclosure — 14 on the grounds of a “deliberative process privilege” that Haslam’s office has asserted previously and the others for various exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act.

…”We do state business on state email. Occasionally, just like you — I’ll bet you have two emails — occasionally you will inadvertently use the wrong one. There is nothing there. I promise,” the governor said.

He said several of the released email exchanges involved the use of the billhaslam.com domain because several of his top staffers met and communicated with each other during his campaign. “A lot of those folks first came together through the campaign and that’s the email they had for me and for each other.

“I can tell you this isn’t a Hillary Clinton deal where we were using personal email only. There’s no state secrets on there. I guarantee you that 99.9 percent of emails happen on the state email except for an inadvertent slip. There’s nothing else.”

…Haslam said, for example, that emailing flowing into his personal cellphone often flows into one default account. “When something comes into your device, it has a default email that it goes to. My handheld default email is personal because I don’t want to do personal business on state email. I can assure you there’s no issue around that.”

The governor also said that his staff and Cabinet members are frequently reminded to use the state email system for state business. “We remind people all the time that state business has to happen on state email. I’ll bet that conversation happens not just in our staff meetings but at Cabinet meetings.”