NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Nashville judge said the Department of Children’s Services has gotten back on track with providing records to the news media of children who died or nearly died.
In a hearing last month, Chancellor Carol McCoy suggested that someone at DCS needed to go to jail for making extensive redactions to the records. In contrast, on Monday, McCoy said the department had failed to black out some identifying information in some of the records.
DCS is releasing the documents in batches after a group of media organizations led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press sued for access to the records of children who died or nearly died between 2009 to mid-2012.
Close to 100 records remain undisclosed. The next hearing was set for Aug. 21.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to seal Tennessee’s handgun carry permit records from public scrutiny is advancing in the Legislature.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 8-0 on Tuesday and is headed for a vote by the full Senate. The companion bill was approved 84-10 in the House last month.
Both versions of the bill would allow for the media and Safety Department to confirm whether someone who had run afoul of the law was a permit holder, but only by providing a legal document or other record “that indicates the named person is not eligible to possess a handgun carry permit.”
The legislation doesn’t create an exception for political operatives and lobbying groups to obtain the entire set of names and addresses.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An effort to seal Tennessee’s handgun carry permit records from public scrutiny would create an exception for political operatives and lobbying groups to still obtain the entire set of names and addresses.
Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that his bill is an effort to block the publication of handgun carry permit records on newspaper websites.
“We’re not trying to keep it where it’s not usable, but we want to keep it from being published,” he said.
Political operatives and advocacy groups want to be able to obtain the names and addresses of all 398,000 handgun carry permit holders so they can target them for fundraising and campaign mailings.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he ran into similar issues when he tried to pass similar legislation years ago.
“My biggest resistance came from members of my own party for this provision, who wanted to continue using it for political purposes,” he said.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Republican lawmaker who last year backed off a bill that would have allowed local officials to hold more closed-door meetings has renewed the effort, saying he’s asked county commissioners to bring him a proposal that has a chance of passing a key subcommittee.
Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin has a bill scheduled before the House State Government Subcommittee on Tuesday that could be amended to address local government officials’ call for a bill to allow them to meet privately as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass such a measure.
Casada told The Associated Press on Thursday that he advised commissioners a bill in that form won’t pass the subcommittee. He didn’t specify what changes should be made, but said he’s “still negotiating.”
By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local official to hold more closed-door meetings.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.
But Barnwell notes in the letter that the law does not apply to the General Assembly.
“The goal of this legislation is to make the Open Meetings Laws as consistent as possible for all elected officials whether state and local,” he said.
Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the effort “misguided.”
Saying more openness is needed on the part of Tennessee policy makers, Rep. Susan Lynn has introduced legislation that would require the disclosure of all real property they own other than their primary home, according to TNReport. The Mt. Juliet Republican’s HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.
“Back in 2006, when we did the ethics reform, we wanted this to be part of the disclosure and simply couldn’t get it done at that time,” said Lynn, who served in the House for eight years before running for state Sen. Mae Beavers’ seat and losing in 2010.
“Leaving the legislature for two years, like I did, you start thinking about the things you wish you’d done or could have done, and this was one of those things.”
…Lynn’s bill would require the disclosure of the address of the property and the month and year of its acquisition, but not everyone in the General Assembly is in favor of it.
Many have told her that the information is a matter of public record, and that should be sufficient. Her argument is that since it is public record, “What’s wrong with putting it all in one neat, consolidated place to make that disclosure?
“I’m not feeling a warm breeze right now from the [Local Government] committee,” said Lynn, who postponed a vote on the bill until March 12. “I really feel like I’m standing out there alone. I know it’s the right thing to do, and I hope they will be amenable.”
She said she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement, if it’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.
Tennessee and 18 other states are already restricted in how they spend some federal highway funds because they haven’t complied with federal mandates to combat drunken driving – notably by not enacting an “open container” law statewide. The Tennessean reports that 14 more states are facing the prospect of having federal funds held in reserve while the Federal Highway Administration completes an assessment of their laws. A combined $539 million would have to be spent on anti-drunken-driving programs or highway safety improvements instead of on general road and bridge construction in those states.
…Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said it appears the federal government has tightened its application of the rules.
“Probably they are within their authority,” Basso said. “The question is, is it really achieving the spirit of the law?”
Federal officials say they had to review states’ drunken-driving laws after Congress updated federal highway programs last year, including changes to some compliance requirements.
Tennessee’s open container laws for years have fallen short of federal regulations, said Kendell Poole, director of the state’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office. In Tennessee, it is legal for vehicle passengers to possess open containers of alcohol — just not drivers.
“Tennessee is known as a pass-the-bottle state,” Poole said. “The short of it is, because we don’t have an open container law that complies, we’re penalized road construction dollars. … But it comes back to the state in terms of behavioral programs, like the Booze It and Lose It campaign, and also grant awards.”
He said the state has been “penalized” similarly for at least a decade. The penalty means Tennessee can’t use the federal money for road construction projects but can divert it to alcohol-related public information campaigns and state transportation efforts that involve the installation of rumble strips, cable wire barriers and other hazard elimination projects.
Poole said his office supports strengthening the state’s open container laws, but legislative efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
– Note: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, has a bill to enact an “open container” law in Tennessee again this year as HB84. It’s not an administration bill, but there is a Haslam administration bill to rewrite the state’s DUI laws, as proposed by Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons. That bill is SB186.
While leaders of the House Republican Caucus contend the group can continue holding meetings behind closed doors, Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris said Wednesday that he believes the Senate Republican Caucus is obliged to meet in public.
Norris said he would be willing to support an amendment to Senate rules that would “clarify” that GOP caucus meetings are open, though he believes they already are. His comments came during debate before the Senate Rules Committee on a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, to make the Senate subject to the state’s “open meetings law,” which now exempts the Legislature while applying to city and county government meetings.
Norris said the Senate in May of 2011 voted unanimously to incorporate a 2006 statute that says meetings of a quorum of the House and Senate must be open to the public except when considering impeachments of matters of state and national security. And to close meeting in such cases, there must be a two-thirds vote of the House or Senate, the statute says.
A quorum of the Senate is 22 members. This year there are 26 Republicans in the Senate Republican Caucus – up six from last session. That, said Norris, means the Senate Republican Caucus must follow the rules and have open meetings.
House rules, on the other hand, do not incorporate a reference to the 2006 statute and, therefore, the old statute does not apply. The law itself, enacted as part of a special session on ethics in 2006, says that it can not impact future legislative session but declares future sessions are “strongly encouraged” to bind themselves by incorporating the statue.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said in an interview that he the issue of opening caucus meetings has been discussed and there was an general agreement that, this year, the meetings would be open is legislative matters were discussed but close when “personal matters” are discussed. He conceded that what is covered by personal matters can be “deep and wide.”
In the last legislative session, House Republican Caucus meetings were routinely and regularly closed to the media and public.
Last session, the House Republican Caucus had 64 members, two shy of a quorum of the full House. This year, the Caucus has 70 members, well over a quorum.
Casada said he had not considered the suggestion made by Norris that, since the Republican caucuses now constitute a quorum of the full Legislature, they should have open meetings. He said the issue would be discussed in future House Republican Caucus meetings, including the possibility of incorporating the 2006 statute into House rules.
Norris suggested that Kyle’s push for a floor debate on adopting the open meetings law “would be a show” and that open meetings are already assured in the Senate. Kyle said he believes the current setup is not working and openness and transparency would be enhanced with legislators following the same law that applies to cities and counties.
Kyle put of a vote of the Rules Committee on his proposal.
The panel did approve six minor changes to Senate rules. One of them would change the titiles of committee officers from chairman, vice chairman and secretary to chairman, first vice chairman and second vice chairman. The panel was told that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey believes the term “secretary” is “antiquated.”
By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations have asked a judge to open records from the Department of Children’s Services, arguing that the public needs information that would reveal how the state handled cases where children they had investigated died or nearly died.
First Amendment attorney Robb Harvey argued Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court that Tennessee’s public records law requires the agency to disclose its files on 151 children who have died since 2009. The DCS had investigated the children and confirmed neglect or abuse in 47 cases.
“The public has a strong interest in knowing what has happened to these children,” Harvey said. “They were either in state custody or DCS had an investigative record on them. They are our most vulnerable citizens, and DCS is an important agency. Without these records, there is no public accountability here.”
Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter disagreed that state law requires the records to be open. She said the law requires the department to provide limited information about the deaths.
News release from Senate Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE – State Sen. Jim Kyle pushed for greater transparency in the 108th General Assembly during the first day of session, by moving to apply the Open Meetings Act to the state Senate.
Sen. Kyle’s motion would have amended preliminary Senate rules to apply the act, applying the same standard to Senate caucuses that’s followed by local governments, Senate committees and the Senate itself. Sen. Kyle withdrew his motion when Rules Committee Chairman Mark Norris agreed to take up the issue.
“If Republicans want open government, they can join with us and support this proposal,” Sen. Kyle said. “By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”
Under former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but that has not been the case under Republican control.
“We seven Democratic Senators represent not only our constituents, but the 2.5 million Democrats in Tennessee,” Sen. Kyle said. “Fighting for their values means fighting for open government. It levels the playing field for ideas, where they can be judged on merit, not politics.”